The fading Left and Israel’s flourishing democracy

Israeli democracy is thriving and fares better on most scores that in the past.

August 21, 2012 22:57
4 minute read.
Youth faction of Meretz Party

Meretz youth 311. (photo credit: Courtesy Meretz)


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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.

They appeal to foreigners to pressure Israel into their desired direction by arguing that Israel is losing its democracy.

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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 days.”

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.

Indeed, the 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 recruitment.

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 Court.

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 states.


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 than before.

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.

A favorite 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 truth.

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 uncomfortable.

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 government.

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 governments.

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

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