Israel: To be or not to be a democracy - opinion

These Hamlets of Zion have already reached the rubicon. Whether Israel lives or dies as a democracy will depend on whether they cross it for real and can bring enough voters with them.

 JUSTICE MINISTER Gideon Sa’ar greets supporters at a New Hope party gathering in Ramat Gan earlier this month. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
JUSTICE MINISTER Gideon Sa’ar greets supporters at a New Hope party gathering in Ramat Gan earlier this month.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

The human experience whips up passionate opinions on so many issues that it can be frustrating to face a binary choice, as democracies often do. But, the complexity can also bring healthy shifts in an ossified landscape: as once-secondary issues gain importance, voters might actually switch from one side to the other.

We witnessed one version of this in recent years in the United States, where longtime blue-collar Democratic voters switched en masse to the Republican Party in its populist reincarnation. We just saw another version of it in France, where the traditional left (the Socialists) and the traditional right (the Gaullist Republicans), weakening for some time, were totally wiped out in the April 10th first round of the presidential election.

And we are seeing an especially fascinating version of it in Israel, where the famous – and famously entrenched – divide between the right-religious bloc and the left-Arab bloc may be unraveling.

The core of this divide goes back to pre-state times, when petty rivalries and fashionable quibbles over socialism whipped up quite a toxic brew. But it soon came down instead to the question of whether to divide the land or not. Israel gets much credit for accepting the 1947 UN partition plan, which the Arabs rejected. But the plan was also rejected by the Revisionist right, which was more hawkish, even then.

This became clear after 1967, when Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt, securing control over the rest of the land that would have gone to a Palestine state: Likud and the right want to keep the territories and settle them with Jews, and the opposing bloc considers this a very bad idea.

Cabinet meeting at the Knesset, April 10, 2022. (credit: OHAD TZVEIGENBERG‏/POOL)Cabinet meeting at the Knesset, April 10, 2022. (credit: OHAD TZVEIGENBERG‏/POOL)

But, three shifts have taken place in recent years, quite evident to all, and yet strangely unremarked:

The first has to do with the status quo on religion, which is becoming untenable because of the Haredi birthrate – eight children per family on average – and the requirement that the Israeli taxpayer fork over child allowances (that just barely sustain terrible poverty), support schools that don’t teach English, science or math, and pay adults a lifelong salary for studying scripture. You can be a hawkish on the Arabs but also understand where this is leading Israel, and it is not to the Start-Up Nation.

The second reason is that while the right fashions itself as nationalist, there is a counterintuitive contradiction between nationalism and the occupation. The occupation sounds nationalist enough – others are being trampled and so forth – but this crumbles as one realizes it’s also saddling Israel with millions of non-Jews (many of whom hate it, in part due to the trampling). You can play around with locking the Arabs into disconnected islands of autonomy and pretend they are not there. But a true and realistic nationalist, upon realizing the Holy Land has as many Arabs as Jews, might find more in common with doves seeking partition than right-wingers who cannot count.

Finance Minister (and former Benjamin Netanyahu aide) Avigdor Liberman personifies both above epiphanies for the price of one. His constituents are mostly secular Russian speakers who cannot stand the creeping theocracy and understand it will eventually destroy the economy. And he is so aware of demographics that he has even (impractically) supported handing over parts of Israel with concentrations of Israeli Arabs to a future Palestine.

THE THIRD reason was Netanyahu’s corruption scandals. Once a rightist of the cerebral sort, writing learned books on security and quoting Milton Friedman, he seemed to morph into a variant of Recep Tayyip Erdogan before Israelis’ very eyes. After drawing three 2019 indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, another might have demurely stepped aside. But, Netanyahu clung ferociously to his seat, launched an assault on the press, police and legal system so vicious that officials required security details, and machinated tirelessly for immunity and other escapes.

This was a bridge too far for Gideon Sa’ar, the poster child of the third epiphany. A lifelong right-winger who always seemed a little squeamish in the hothouse of Likud, he established the New Hope party as a home for rightists who draw the line at authoritarianism and graft.

Together, the three shifts finally brought Netanyahu down. Regardless of what happens with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s now-disintegrating Yamina Party, there is a majority of 61 against Netanyahu in the Knesset even without it.

The new divide, however, is no longer the simple for-or-against partition dichotomy of the past. Nor is it, as some have argued, simply an infantile question of personality politics for or against Netanyahu. It is, I believe, more interesting and less provincial than any of that.

Israel’s new divide aligns with what is happening in France, the United States and much of the rest of the world. It is the same in lesser democracies like Turkey and even non-democracies like Russia. It is the great ideological struggle of the 21st century, accelerated by the digital age, and it pits supporters of liberal democracy against those who might believe in elections but not in equality and freedom – not really.

And it is understandable too: technology, liberalization and globalization have so benefited the educated, mobile and connected that we are living in one of the least economically egalitarian eras in history. If many people want to burn down the house, it is because their room is a mess; if they fall prey to conspiracy theories and allow their inner demons to draw them to populists and racists, it is human nature in a way.

The liberal world order established in the wake of World War II (and the concurrent decolonization) encompassing both the classic Left and the classic Right, which is why both are crumbling. Every US president of the past century came from one or the other, and until Emmanuel Macron, so did every president of the Fifth Republic.

Almost all of them, including the rightists, belong to the liberal world order (despite confusion about the word liberal in the US). Ronald Reagan did. Jacques Chirac did. Menachem Begin, perhaps incredibly to some, also did.

In Israel, people like Bennett, Sa’ar and Liberman may still call themselves right-wingers. But, once Netanyahu departs the scene, they will face a major test that may belie what that implies. Because in my reading, on the bigger issue they belong on the democratic side, and you can call it whatever you like.

These Hamlets of Zion have already reached the rubicon. Whether Israel lives or dies as a democracy will depend on whether they cross it for real and can bring enough voters with them.

The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press, served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem and is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at