The fading Left and Israel’s flourishing democracy
Israeli democracy is thriving and fares better on most scores that in the past.
Youth faction of Meretz Party Photo: Courtesy Meretz
The Israeli Left, frustrated following its failure to garner support in recent
elections, has adopted a new strategy. Even before shrinking in the 2009
elections to only 16 MKs (represented by Labor and Meretz), several leftist
figures decided to appeal to external forces “to save Israel from itself” rather
than struggle for the hearts and minds of the Israeli people.
to foreigners to pressure Israel into their desired direction by arguing that
Israel is losing its democracy.
A recent example of this approach is an
op-ed in The New York Times titled “Israel’s Fading Democracy,” which
exemplifies the longing for the days when the left was in power, particularly
before 1977, a year that ended the Labor party hegemony in Israeli politics. Yet
an objective analysis of Israeli politics shows that Israel’s vibrant democracy
is alive and kicking and faring much better than during the “old
Since 1977, Israel has witnessed a circulation of political
elites, as three different parties (Likud, Labor and Kadima) led Israeli
governments. The end of the hegemonic party era democratized Israel’s political
system. For example, the practice of determining the composition of the Knesset
party lists by an oligarchic “nominating committee” was also terminated, at
least among the big parties. Most major parties in the latter period have also
adopted primaries facilitating access to political positions.
post-1977 period was characterized by greater social mobility. The erosion of
socialist practices and privatization of a centralized economy contributed to
the growth of a non-Ashkenazi middle class. Social mobility has also been
enhanced by a greater access to higher education. During the post- 1977 period a
large number of colleges of varying quality were opened, and competed with the
established universities for students and resources. Over time Israel has also
seen slightly less influence of central power at the municipal level, allowing
for the emergence of new foci of power and a new venue for leadership
Another indication of improved democracy is the ascendance
of the Supreme Court that started after the decline of Labor. It was Prime
Minister Menachem Begin who encouraged a more active role for the Supreme
Begin was instrumental in the nomination of Aharon Barak to the
court (1978), who pushed the court to a very interventionist stance after his
nomination to Supreme Court president in 1995. The independence of the police
and the judicial system in Israel has drastically increased in recent years. The
Israel judicial system fearlessly prosecuted a president, prime minister and
cabinet ministers, becoming the subject of envy in many democratic
The media – the watchdog of democracy – has been totally
transformed since 1977. The mobilized written and electronic press disappeared.
Almost all “party” newspapers have vanished. In their place a plethora of media
outlets with different agendas emerged. This free media plays a stronger role
Additionally, in the area of minority rights there has been
continuous improvement. Until 1965 the Israeli Arabs, under a military
government until 1965, and with Arab parties affiliated with the ruling party,
are today represented by three Arab parties of a variety of views. Gays in
Israel successfully gained rights due to the ultra-liberal policies of the
Supreme Court. There is definitely greater sensitivity and corresponding
legislation for equality among women and disadvantaged groups.
address for criticism by the Left is the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). It is
accused of having disproportionate clout in the decision-making process and of
breeding militarism in Israel’s society. Nothing is further from the
THE MILITARY’s highest ranks are no longer dominated by party
card-carriers, and Labor convictions are no longer a necessary condition for
being appointed to the position of chief-ofstaff.
The military actually
became more representative of the demographic trends and the growing social
mobility. Its ranks include new immigrants, Sephardim, and members of the
national-religious camp, the latter making part of the Ashkenazi old elite feel
Unlike in 1967, when some generals almost revolted against
the government’s hesitation to strike first, in the post-Labor era the military
displayed more professionalism and has been more obedient in accepting the
judgment of the elected political leadership.
The military was kept in
the dark during the negotiations of the September 1993 Oslo Accords. The
military also recommended against the May 2000 unilateral withdrawal from
Lebanon and the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. The three most important strategic
decisions since 1993 were implemented despite the fact that the IDF did not
support them, proving that Israel does not have an army-dominated, militaristic
Israeli democracy is thriving and fares better on most scores
that in the past.
Not everything is perfect and there is always room for
improvement. Yet the leftists that complain about Israeli democracy are
basically sore losers.
They have difficulties accepting that their
messages are rejected by most Israelis. They have lost faith in a basic
democratic tenet: Israelis have the democratic right to elect their
Shmuel Sandler is a professor of Political Studies at
Bar-Ilan University and a senior associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for
Strategic Studies. Efraim Inbar is a professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan
University, director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies