Op-Ed: Israeli Democracy
New immigrants and visitors to Israel, especially from Anglo-American countries, are mystified, if not appalled, by Israel’s political system, especially by its astonishing multiplicity of parties: 33 in its last two national elections! While the recent Governance Law is intended to change that to some degree, it is by far not the only problem. Let me provide an overview of how to understand democracy in Israel.
For most people, the mere fact that Israel has periodic, multiparty elections convinces them that Israel is a democracy. This is naive. Democratic elections do not necessarily render the government of a country accountable to the governed, and without accountability there is no genuine democracy. Nevertheless, although accountability is lacking in Israeli government, Israeli society is pretty democratic.
To understand democracy in Israel, one can do no better than consult Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic, "Democracy in America". For de Tocqueville, the decisive principle in America is not democratic elections or even its structure of government, but equality of conditions. Equality of conditions means that no citizen is bound by law to the station of his birth. Equality of conditions enables any citizen to rise on the socio-economic ladder. A person of humble origin may become the country’s leader. Hence, democracy precludes hereditary privileges or a legally entrenched privileged class.
However, though a country may be democratic from this sociological perspective, it may be undemocratic from a political perspective. Thus, despite democratic elections, Members of the Knesset and those who become Cabinet ministers are not individually elected by and accountable to the voters in constituency elections.
Elected Israeli politicians can ignore public opinion with impunity—and do so even on matters involving the borders of the country. Recall how Likud Prime Minister Sharon adopted Labor’s policy of “unilateral disengagement,” a policy rejected by an overwhelming majority of the voters in the January 2003 election.
Elected Israeli politicians can ignore public opinion with impunity—and do so even on matters involving the borders of the country.
And note that no prime minister has ever been constitutionally removed from office by a Knesset vote of no confidence.
To this add Israel’s Supreme Court, a self-perpetuating oligarchy whose rulings often violate the abiding beliefs of a large majority of Israel’s population. Israel’s popularly elected Knesset is excluded from the nomination and confirmation of Supreme Court judges, whose appointment is very much controlled by the Court’s Chief Justice.
Israel’s structure of governance therefore oscillates between prime ministerial and judicial despotism. (Hence the title of one of my books is "The Myth of Israeli Democracy".)
Now let’s approach the subject from a somewhat different perspective. There are two types of democracy. Both have, as their basic principles, freedom and equality. In one type, freedom and equality lack ethical and rational constraints. I call this “normless” democracy—the kind that now characterizes post-Christian Europe, which is dominated by moral relativism, a doctrine that denies objective standards of “good” and “bad,” “right” and wrong.”
The second type of democracy is “normative” democracy, whose principles can be seen in the American Declaration of Independence. This document implicitly derives freedom and equality from ethical monotheism and thus places rational limitations on freedom and equality.
Unsurprisingly, the word “democracy” is constantly on the lips of Israel’s politicians, judges, rabbis, academics, journalists, the literati, and ordinary citizens. All boast of Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and so people think throughout the world. Israel’s reputation as a democracy is precisely what endows its Government with legitimacy and its ruling elites with respectability, especially in America, where Israel’s reputation as a democracy counts most in securing U.S. military aid.
Of course, Israel is most democratic compared to her autocratic Arab neighbors—hardly something to boast of—but that tells us nothing about democracy in Israel.
What confuses the issue is this: The mentality of a society may be democratic insofar as it exalts freedom and equality. Yet, despite universal suffrage and periodic multiparty elections, the structure of its government can actually disempower the people. This can happen where those who wield the Legislative and Executive powers of government can ignore public opinion with impunity, at least between elections.
On the other hand, if we ignore the paramount issue of Who Rules, and focus only on Israeli society, there is a sense in which Israel is a democracy.
Israel is a crazy-quilt society of immigrants from a hundred different countries. Both secularists and religionists in Israel are fragmented. Fragmentation is magnified by a law having no equivalent among the 88 other countries classified as democracies by Freedom House (a research organization in the United States). The law makes the entire country a single electoral district in which parties, with closed lists, compete for parliamentary seats via Proportional Representation.
Let me review how a citizen votes in Israel. After being duly identified, he (or she) enters a voting booth. There he sees thirty or more stacks of small slips of paper, the number of stacks depending on the number of parties authorized to run in the election. The slips or ballots are about three inches square. Printed on the slips are two or three Hebrew letters which signify a particular party. The names of the party’s candidates—they are ranked in order—do not appear on the ballot. Large parties have a list of 120 candidates; of course, the number is much smaller for minor parties.
Apart from a party’s leader and a few high-ranking candidates, most of the candidates of the party with which a voter identifies are unknown to him. He will know even fewer candidates of the other parties competing in the election.
The voter selects a single slip, puts it into an envelope, leaves the booth and drops the envelope into a box. That’s democracy, Israeli style. But I have omitted a most important fact.
A low electoral threshold—up to now 2% and soon to be 4%—multiplies the number of parties such that none has ever come close to winning a parliamentary majority representing the people. Hence, the Government, i.e., the Cabinet, invariably consists of a multiplicity of rival parties, each having its own agenda. The people never know beforehand the combination of parties that may form their Government.
With a Government consisting of several rival parties, Israel may be said to have a plural Executive. Lacking a unitary Executive, the people of Israel, steeped in diversity, have no clear sense of national purpose. Sociological pluralism, appropriate in the Legislature, is carried over into the Executive branch, leaving the country in disarray, but giving it an aura of democracy. This means that Israel, from a sociological perspective, approximates a normless democracy. However, if we examine the relationship between the Government and the governed via Israel’s electoral laws and institutions, lo and behold - Israel is not really what we consider a democracy!
Analysis of its decision-making institutions reveals that Israel does not have a government of the people, for the people, and by the people. What we see in Israel is a polymorphous society run by a profusion of party elites virtually indifferent to public opinion between elections.
Thus, despite universal suffrage, the people have been effectively disenfranchised! Israel is a regime of parties, secular, religious, Jewish, and Arab. In fact, given the permissive rulings of Israel’s Supreme Court, it makes no difference whether the parties in the Knesset support or oppose Israel’s existence as a Jewish state! This is the quintessence of normless democracy, where not even the laws of treason are enforced.
In normless democracy, neither truth nor reason nor reverence nor deference has the power to unite citizens. Since normless democracy is mired in moral relativism, Israel today lacks its original vibrant national pride, vivid sense of national identity, and virile national leadership.
So Israel’s reputation as a democracy is something of a myth. Its ruling elites have deliberately fostered this myth to perpetuate their own power on the one hand, and to prevent Israel from becoming a genuine Jewish commonwealth on the other. And the citizens who should be most critical and outspoken about this pathetic state of affairs, the religious community, remain silent, as if indifferent to sanctifying the Name of God!
The reader should note, however, that my book, "The Myth of Israeli Democracy", has a subtitle: “Toward a Truly Jewish Israel.” It outlines a Philosophy of Jewish Democracy. Unfortunately, no party in Israel has yet had the wit and the will to address this meta-political issue. Intellectual and political stagnation prevail. New parties arise in Israel, but are led by mediocrities who dither about “vision.”
It were as if Israel needs nothing more than a good ophthalmologist.□