The re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been described by some of his critics as a blow to democracy, or as proof of Israel’s progress towards “illiberal democracy”.
However, many democracy watchers disagree with this assessment, as do some constitutional law experts and political analysts in Israel – and some of them are on the left.
In fact, by various benchmarks, Israel’s democratic system remains among the most stable and healthy in the world. Its quality has actually improved in some aspects in recent years.
Israel’s election, as always, was straightforward and free, and the outcome unambiguous. While the outcome has never been assured, with hindsight, there is no shortage of reasons why Israeli voters chose Netanyahu over his challenger, political newcomer and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, whether they be agree with Netanyahu’s worldview or personally endorse it.
Political analyst Anshel Pfeffer of the leftist Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote after the elections, ‘[Netanyahu] delivered a decade of uninterrupted economic growth. His last term has seen four of the quietest years in Israel’s history, and he is now on good terms with the world’s most powerful leaders, ”adding:“ The biggest surprise of this election for me was that Benjamin Netanyahu did not win by a landslide. ‘
Although a recent Netanyahu biographer, Pfeffer is not a fan. “I am one of the 47% who voted against Netanyahu, and I am quite depressed that he won,” he wrote. “But I cannot for the life of me see how the result is the death of Israeli democracy, as some now write in opinion columns and on social media…[T]his election… was probably one of the most democratic we have had.
Much of the angst over the risk to Israel’s democratic institutions has centered on clashes between members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition and Israel’s Supreme Court, which has at times rendered rulings that they do not like.
Yet voters turned their backs on Naftali Bennett’s New Right party, which had built its campaign around Ayelet Shaked’s return as Minister of Justice and her continued crusade against what she saw as l High Court judicial activism against popular interests. The New Right has not crossed the electoral threshold.
And Netanyahu’s new government will likely be more moderate than the previous one. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud parties fell from 14 seats in the previous Knesset to 10.
Meanwhile, Israel’s robust state of democracy and freedoms stands up to scrutiny and compares well with other democracies in the eyes of impartial and respected watch groups.
In the past two years, Israel has ranked 30th Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index. Its ranking in 2018 places it ahead of Belgium and just behind France.
In 2017, the annual conference of the Israel Democracy Institute investigation found that “international indicators suggest that, overall, Israel has been a stable democracy over the past decade.” Last years report, the most recent, has only continued the trend.
Some respected academics in Israel have also assessed the condition of the nation’s democracy as solidly healthy.
In December 2018, Pnina Sharvit Baruch, International Law Expert and Senior Researcher and Head of the Law and National Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University published an article on the theme “Is Israeli democracy in danger?”
In his article, Shavit Baruch focused his attention on four areas in which Israeli democracy is tested: the protection of human rights, control of the West Bank, criticism of the government and civilian activists, and checks and balances. and the status of custodians.
‘At the end of the day,’ she concluded, ‘it seems Israel’s democracy remains strong and has a solid foundation.
While Shavit Baruch cautioned against “appeasement” and added that “measures aimed at eroding democratic values should be countered”, she lambasted those who exaggerated the threat to Israeli democracy. “The tendency of some critics to present as undemocratic any point of view contrary to their political position is dangerous in itself,” she wrote, “because ‘crying wolf'” makes it difficult to distinguish between legitimate measures, although politically controversial and measures which are truly undemocratic in nature.
Shavit Baruch’s opinion has been shared by others.
For Israel’s democracy to be considered illiberal, it would have to compare poorly with other democracies on major criteria such as court and press freedom and civil liberties. And yet, these are precisely the areas in which Israel continues to excel.
The World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index 2017–18 ranked Israel 14th out of 137 countries in the world in terms of judicial independence, an improvement of four places from the previous report.
Liberty house World Freedom Report 2019 awarded Israel 13 out of 16 points for “political pluralism and participation”, a perfect rating for “electoral process”, and 10 out of 12 possible points for “functioning of government”.
Freedoms for the press, religion, minorities, women, and LGBTQ communities are broad, enshrined in law, and enacted and protected by Israel’s national institutions. The country’s culture of freedom and the open debate of sometimes radically opposed ideas is a hallmark of its political culture inside and outside the Knesset.
In a 2016 survey According to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Polling, 68% of Palestinian respondents (73% in the West Bank and 59% in the Gaza Strip) expressed their admiration for Israel’s democracy, calling it good or very good.
Given Israel’s healthy state of democracy and civil liberties, to call the country “illiberal” or anything close to it is a derogatory exaggeration and distortion.