Israel at the polls: A place in the world’s third democratic revolution

Israel is going through a period that other democracies have faced or will face – what should be called the “third democratic revolution.”

VOTING IS a revolutionary act (photo credit: REUTERS)
VOTING IS a revolutionary act
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Millions of Israelis who vote in the 2019 elections are taking part in a revolutionary process. It is a privilege to vote in a democracy and be part of electing a new government. Throughout human history, only a handful of countries have been able to create and preserve democratic institutions. Whatever its flaws, Israel is one of them.
Israel is going through a period that other democracies have faced or will face – what should be called the “third democratic revolution.”
The first democratic revolution was in the founding of the state. The very miracle of having a democracy is exceptional, as all democracies are born fragile.
The second revolution was in 1977, when a change in power took place. These kinds of changes have occurred in other countries – whether in Turkey, India, Mexico or Italy – and in various periods, when the consensus “founding parties” melted away and a new party, usually on the Right, emerged. For instance, the rise to power of the BJP in India in 1996, or Silvio Berlusconi, who first came to power in Italy in 1994.
Then the third democratic revolution arrives, when the weakening of the traditional Right and Left means smaller fringe parties are able to make inroads, or the Right and Left are fundamentally altered from within. In large, two-party democracies like the US, what happens is that each large party simply has a wing that is gobbled up by some new force, like the Tea Party or the Progressives. In Israel it’s a bit different, because everyone just creates their own party rather than fight for space among the elephants. But the result is the same.
We live in a period of unprecedented doubt about the future. This is not an Israeli phenomenon, but a global one. With the rise of terrorism, religious extremism and authoritarian movements, the world is more cynical than it was in the 1990s. Between 1974 and 1990, at least 30 countries became democracies, according to a 1991 study in the Journal of Democracy.
I remember those days in the 1990s when we thought the whole world would become democratic, and that peace and prosperity would prevail. This was called “democratic peace,” the notion that democracies don’t fight one another. In retrospect, we now see how fragile this idea was and how naïve we were. Agreements that sought to reduce borders, for instance the 1985 Schengen Agreement in Europe, have been tested by mass migration and refugee crises, and the unwillingness of neoliberal states to set down values to deal with them.
TODAY WE face new challenges – and Israel is at the forefront of those challenges. Despite the stereotypes in the Western press that portray Israel as simply a foil for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling him “King Bibi” or other names, Israel is one of the most complex and diverse countries in the world. It used to be that critics of Israel called the country an “anachronism” – a nation-state in an era when we are all trending toward not having “racist” nations anymore, but rather a global village.
The reality is that most countries are trending toward insularity now, re-discovering national roots, or challenging the idea that national histories should be watered down into some global “world-is-flat” amalgam. This is a natural response to challenges from outside. Countries have discovered that you can’t easily be progressive and liberal when your neighbors become increasingly aggressive, illiberal and intolerant. Israel has become much more openly “right wing” in its embrace of a robust, muscular nationalism.
But Israel is not the cliché that some like to portray it as. Where else do you see election ads on television in both Russian and Arabic? Where else do you have such a range of parties from religious to secular? Where else are so many issues up for debate? Israel’s politics suffer from the scandals and dirty tricks of all political campaigns, but it is also inspiring.
There is an elephant in the room in Israel’s elections, which is an increasing disinterest in discussing what really will become of Israel’s long-term conflict with Gaza and its rule over the West Bank. Despite promises of annexation or “getting tough on terror,” the reality is more nuanced. Israel has few long-term goals for either area, and it’s widely understood that while there is consensus on security, there is also consensus on continuing the status quo, lest rocking the boat causes a new crisis.
Whatever comes out of the election, the government will be another coalition that broadly represents the consensus in Israel. That also means that larger questions will likely not be addressed, such as religion and state issues. One can point to that as a failure of Israeli democracy, but it is also a widespread failure across all democracies.
Democracies no longer try to make major changes; they tend towards incrementalism – no matter how much people brag about the major “changes” under US President Donald Trump, or the UK’s Brexit, or Italy’s populist government. Look closely and you’ll see: not much changes domestically. After all, the UK hasn’t left the European Union yet, has it? And Trump hasn’t really done most of the things he claimed he would do domestically. And Italy’s government doesn’t really have a vision for how to deal with the refugee and migrant crisis. We will need a fourth democratic revolution to address those large systemic issues.