Is there a danger to democracy - opinion

Everyone seems to be worried about the future of democracy in Israel.

 MK GILAD KARIV (right), chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, confers with Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar during a committee meeting earlier this month. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
MK GILAD KARIV (right), chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, confers with Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar during a committee meeting earlier this month.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

No matter whom you ask, everyone seems to be worried about the future of democracy in Israel. However, the explanations for this observation depend on whom one asks, and one conclusion is that one of the fundamental problems is that not everyone is really committed to democracy, and there is a lack of consensus as to what is meant by the term “democracy.”

Most Likudniks today will tell you that the problem is that while the majority of Israelis are right-wing, the current government is an unnatural mixture of right-wingers, left-wingers and Arabs. They go on to argue that the reason a right-wing government was not formed after the last election, despite the right-wing majority, was that three allegedly right-wing parties acted in a treacherous manner by preferring to form a government with the “Left” and the Islamic Movement than with their ideological soul mates.

However, the problem was primarily the fact that Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu do not have a problem with the right-wing ideology as such, but with Benjamin Netanyahu personally – both because of his fickle conduct vis-à-vis his colleagues, and because of his indictment on criminal charges. Under the circumstances, their choice was not undemocratic in any sense of the word, and the attempt to suggest that the three parties “stole” right-wing votes to form a left-wing government led by the Islamic Movement is simply untrue.

The voters of New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu knew exactly what they were voting for, while the voters of Yamina had been told by its leader – Naftali Bennett – that his preference was a right-wing government, if this would be possible. But, Bennett concluded, after the results of the election became known, that even with the support of Yamina, Netanyahu couldn’t form a government, because the Religious Zionist Party refused to join a government supported by an Arab party, so the only alternative left was a fifth round of elections, which Bennett had publicly rejected from the very start.

The Likud also complains about the breach of democracy when it argues that the current government is breaking democratic norms by refusing to give the opposition its due proportion of seats in the Knesset committees.

THE KNESSET building in Jerusalem holds one of the world’s smallest legislatures. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)THE KNESSET building in Jerusalem holds one of the world’s smallest legislatures. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

No one argues that the current policy of the coalition in this respect is comme il faut.

However, with a Jewish opposition, most of which does not recognize the legitimacy of the current coalition, and even implies that in its eyes the coalition’s legality is dodgy, and which since the new government was sworn in has implemented a policy of disrupting the proceedings of plenary sittings, of refusing to man the seats allotted to it in the committees, and of constantly stating – including by the leader of the opposition himself – that it plans to bring down “this illegitimate and dangerous government” as soon as possible and by any means, why is it “antidemocratic” for the government to try to defend itself, until such time as the opposition announces that it will start playing by the rules?

The Likud and the rest of the Jewish opposition also argue that the mere fact that the coalition (not the government, per se) includes the representatives of the Islamic Movement in the Knesset is treasonous, and thus antidemocratic. In other words, their perception of “democracy” does not include the full participation of Arab citizens in the democratic game.

If we look at the haredi parties separately, they believe that a government that does not include representatives of just over 10% of the population (i.e., the haredim) is not democratic, though they do not seem to feel the same way when one is speaking of the Left, the Center and the Arabs, and they refuse to accept a Reform rabbi (MK Gilad Kariv, from the Labor Party) as chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

They also refuse to recognize the problematics, in democratic terms, of their own autonomic conduct in many spheres, which does not tally with the law, nor with the basic principles of a well-ordered democracy – including their refusal to place women on their lists of candidates for the Knesset.

CONTRARY TO the Jewish opposition, the government argues that it is the opposition that is acting in a disruptive manner that threatens democracy, as described above.

The government points out that under the current circumstances the opposition doesn’t vote according to its voters’ interests or its ideology, but on the basis of trying to embarrass the coalition and cause it to lose as many votes in the plenum as possible, even if these are not consequential.

It should be pointed out that, inter alia, this has caused the coalition to vote on the basis of circumstantial tactics, rather than on the basis of principles and ideology. This practice – both by the opposition and the coalition – very frequently turns the work of the Knesset into a farce, which in no way serves democracy.

The coalition also complains that the rhetoric used by many members of the opposition – especially from the Likud and the haredi parties – is abusive, libelous and inciteful.

Last week we mentioned the speeches and utterances of MK David Amsalem, who is one of the worst offenders on these counts. In no way can this form of rhetoric be considered democratic – with all due respect to the freedom of speech. The absence of an Ethics Committee aggravates the situation.

The excuse that Amsalem speaks from the “blood of his heart,” as a result of the real and alleged discrimination against the Mizrahim by the “left-wing Ashkenazi elites,” is simply not acceptable. Would those women who are subject to both domestic and general violence, and discrimination – which is unfortunately still widely justified in many sectors of the population – be justified in using the sort of vicious language used by Amsalem, against men in general, and all the abusive and discriminating bodies and communities, while speaking from “the blood of their hearts,” and much too frequently from fear for their lives?

Admittedly, abusive language is occasionally used by the Left against parts of the Right – and it, too, must be regarded as unacceptable and antidemocratic.

I perfectly agree that there is an urgent need to do something about the political discourse in the country, on all sides of the political spectrum, but at the current juncture I suspect that without a concrete decision by Netanyahu to change course as leader of the opposition, nothing much will change.

HOWEVER, WHAT is most important is to try to engage in strengthening the support for democracy in all parts of society – not only aspects of democracy that seem politically advantageous to specific parties at specific moments of time, but democracy as a principle of running public affairs, which refuses to accept political discrimination against certain groups among the citizens of this countries on the basis of ethnicity, race, religious practice and ideology.

Irrespective of what is going on in the political arena today, if people do not really believe in democracy and do not mind what happens to democracy, the chances of democracy to survive are not good.

And a postscript: Two weeks ago I wrote about the false accusation hurled in the Knesset plenum against Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) that she is a racist.

Last week MK Moshe Arbel (Shas), who was one of the accusers, apologized to Zandberg. Zandberg bitterly commented: “But?” to which Arbel answered, “There is no but.” Chapeau.

The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement, and recently published a book in Hebrew, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, soon to be published in English by Routledge.