Is Israel a democracy?

Many Israelis believe that judicial institutions, such as the High Court and the Prosecutor’s Office, are not responsive to the people and represent a left-wing elite.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the kick-off event of the Christian Media Summit and the inauguration of the Friends of Zion Museum’s media center. (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the kick-off event of the Christian Media Summit and the inauguration of the Friends of Zion Museum’s media center.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Is Israel a democracy? Yes, essentially, but there are major flaws in its political and electoral systems. For example, votes of parties that do not pass the threshold are discarded, and members of Knesset are not accountable to voters. This explains why so many Israelis (roughly one-third) don’t bother to vote.
When I immigrated to Israel 40 years ago and was going to vote for the first time, I was told: “No matter whom you vote for, you get Shimon Peres.” Israeli elections, one concludes, are meaningless because they are about personalities, not policies; they are superficial, not substantial. The real government is run by the “deep state,” bureaucrats such as directors general of ministries and professionals who provide continuity and expertise, but are unaccountable. Politicians who become ministers are usually not experts in the subject of their position; they rely on an experienced staff.
Many Israelis believe that judicial institutions, such as the High Court and the Prosecutor’s Office, are not responsive to the people and represent a left-wing elite. This is apparent in the “judicial revolution” engineered by former chief justice Aharon Barak that gave the High Court virtually unlimited power to intervene in any government decision. It was also apparent when one of Israel’s finest legal experts, Prof. Ruth Gavison, was rejected as a candidate for the court because she was considered “too independent.”
In a democracy, institutions are meant to serve the people and provide social cohesion. That is the basis of national identity and national unity. Since Israeli voters have no direct access to Knesset members, they have little or no way of influencing the system and creating a truly representative democracy. As long as Israel’s flawed system exists, elections will end in stalemates, preventing stability and undermining national cohesion.
Recently, the Blue and White Party has promoted legislation that would require the prime minister to resign if indicted. This cheap political maneuver seeks to empower the left-dominated Prosecutor’s Office to remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without a trial. It’s an example of the “deep state” corruption that we face.
The decline in voter participation is due to many factors. It began when Israel’s economy liberalized and its private sector expanded tremendously. When public companies were sold off, the Labor Party, which had ruled Israel since its inception, lost access to sources of patronage and power. Those who no longer received jobs had less incentive to vote for it. The arrival of millions of immigrants from Russia, the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, and the growth of the Arab population (which votes in smaller proportions compared to Jews), are also factors. A major reason, undoubtedly, is the loss of confidence in politicians and parties as a result of corruption scandals involving public officials.
The problem in Israel’s electoral system is that votes for smaller parties which do not pass the threshold are discarded, regardless of whether they agree to transfer their votes to larger parties or not. Although all votes are counted, only votes of parties that pass the threshold count.
Even if smaller parties pass the threshold but do not sign agreements with larger parties, their votes are meaningless unless they become part of the ruling coalition. Israeli law does not say what happens to votes of parties that do not pass the threshold. The law could require votes to be transferred to other parties by prior agreement, which would prevent those votes from being discarded. Presently, it does not.
CURRENTLY, THE only way to avoid this unfair and discriminatory system is for parties to form alliances. This was done recently by the Joint Arab List, which enabled it to have a bloc of a dozen Knesset seats; along with “center-left” parties, they prevented the formation of a majority coalition. Only two “right-wing” parties joined together (Yamina); the rest did not, thus losing their advantage and wasting votes. Likud is also responsible for this distortion by not providing for an alliance of all right-wing parties.
Government officials and politicians who criticize those who don’t vote are to blame for failing to change this system, or at least acknowledging its faults. Establishing a threshold may be a way of encouraging people to vote for larger parties, but discarding votes undermines the entire democratic system and the values which we trust and upon which we rely. In a democracy, the best way to evaluate and determine what citizens prefer is by looking at how they vote, not ignoring it.
It is no coincidence that since introducing higher thresholds without protecting all votes, the percentage of voters has declined. This distortion has been exaggerated by attacks on Netanyahu and threats to indict him by the Left. The failure to form a ruling coalition which represents a majority of voters, however, is the fault of Israel’s political system.
This distortion allowed Yitzhak Rabin, as head of a Labor Party-led minority coalition, to bribe two MKs from the right-wing opposition in order to pass highly controversial legislation – the Oslo Accords (1993-1995) – by a single vote. Israel’s judicial and legal system did not protest this unethical if not illegal act. The Likud won the election in 1996, but Netanyahu could not change the Oslo Accords that Rabin had signed and implemented.
In 1999, a Labor Party-led coalition won the election, and Ehud Barak became prime minister. Two years later, Yasser Arafat unleashed the most violent terrorist attacks in Israel’s history, the “Second Intifada,” which claimed over 1,000 Israeli lives and many thousands more maimed and wounded. That coalition was defeated in the election of 2001 by the Likud, and Ariel Sharon became prime minister.
He led Likud until 2005 when, in order to avoid opposition to his plan of unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four Jewish communities in Samaria, he left Likud and formed the Kadima Party, supported by the Labor Party – without any electoral process.
Israel’s judicial and legal system did not challenge this unprecedented political betrayal. Israeli voters were neither consulted nor had any possibility of objecting. When Sharon died in 2006, he was replaced by Ehud Olmert. Although Kadima won the next election, the First Lebanese War broke out and the party declined. Olmert was convicted of corruption and sent to prison in 2014; the party ended in 2015 – a symptom of a compromised, corrupted system.
An excellent analysis of the problem and a plan for comprehensive reform was proposed by Prof. Paul Eidelberg in his ACPR Policy Paper #79, “Making Votes Count: They Don’t in Israel!”
Israeli society is at risk, and its voters hope that those who are tasked with political responsibility will be up to this challenge. Knesset legislation can solve the problem, but that requires courage and wise leadership.
As a first step, a Knesset committee can call for proposals to reform the electoral system. It can hold open sessions to discuss the proposals; short versions can be published in Israeli newspapers. And then, the Knesset can implement changes which would renew and revitalize Israeli democracy. This process can begin now; we have waited long enough.