The Fading Left and Israel’s Flourishing Democracy
by Shmuel Sandler and Efraim Inbar
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 178, August 16, 2012
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Many of Israel’s detractors on the left argue that Israel’s democracy is in a state of decline. A closer look shows that Israeli democracy is thriving. A gradual decentralization of power since Likud’s rise to the top in 1977 has given more political groups a chance to share power. The judicial system is strong and independent, and fearless in its prosecution of senior politicians.
The end of party-affiliated journalism has allowed greater criticism of the government by the Israeli media. Minority groups enjoy greater rights than ever before. The army has become more professional and plays a smaller role in decision-making than before. When taking these factors into consideration, it is clear that Israeli democracy is doing quite well, despite the assertions of the fading left.
The frustrated Israeli left that failed to garner support in recent elections has adopted a new strategy. Already before shrinking in the 2009 elections to only 16 Knesset members (represented by Labor and Meretz), several leftist figures decided to turn to external forces “to save Israel from itself” rather than struggle for the hearts and minds of the Israeli people. They argued that Israel’s democracy is in danger and tried to mobilize European and American public opinion to pressure Israel in their desired direction. A recent example of this strategy is an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “Israel’s Fading Democracy.”
This op-ed exemplifies the longing for the days when the left was in power, particularly before 1977, a year that ended the Labor party hegemony in Israeli politics. Yet an objective analysis of the traits of Israeli politics shows that Israel’s vibrant democracy is alive and kicking and actually faring much better than it did during the “old days.”
The Post-1977 Politics
Until 1977 the Labor camp ruled the national institutions continuously, in power since before the founding of the state. Since 1977, however, Israel has witnessed a circulation of political elites, as three different parties (Likud, Labor, and Kadima) led Israeli governments. The end of the hegemonic party era democratized Israel’s political system. For example, the practice of determining the composition of the Knesset party lists by an oligarchic “nominating committee” was also terminated, at least among the big parties. Most major parties in the latter period have also adopted primaries facilitating access to political positions.
Indeed, the post-1977 period was characterized by greater social mobility. The erosion of socialist practices and privatization of a centralized economy contributed to the growth of a non-Ashkenazi middle class. Social mobility has also been enhanced by a greater access to high learning. During the post-1977 period a large number of colleges of varying quality were opened, and competed with the established universities for students and resources.
Over time Israel has also seen slightly less influence of central power at the municipal level, allowing for the emergence of new foci of power and a new venue for leadership recruitment. This also contributed to the opening up of the Israeli political system.
The Judicial System
A pivotal component in any democracy is the role of the judicial system. The ascendance of the Israeli Supreme Court, considered the stronghold of democracy by the left, to its current elevated status started after the decline of Labor. It was Prime Minister Menachem Begin who encouraged a more active role for the Supreme Court. It was under the presidency of Meir Shamgar (1983-1995), who himself came from the right camp, that its role was expanded. Begin was instrumental in the nomination of Aharon Barak to the Supreme Court in 1978. Barak, known for his liberal views, pushed the Supreme Court to an even more interventionist stance after his nomination to President of the Supreme Court in 1995.
The independence of the police and the judicial system in Israel has drastically increased in recent years. The Israel judicial system fearlessly prosecuted a president, prime minister, and cabinet ministers, becoming the subject of envy in many democratic states. The police, due to the prodding of the courts, have also allowed greater freedom of expression by demonstrations than before.
The media – the watchdog of democracy – has been totally transformed after 1977. The mobilized written and electronic press disappeared. Almost all “party” newspapers have vanished. In their place a plethora of media outlets with different agendas emerged. To be sure, Netanyahu was instrumental in the establishment of a right-wing newspaper, Israel Hayom. But most of the written and electronic media, as well as the new social media, is free and fills its duties, sometimes too well, as the watching dog of the politicians.
Additionally, in the area of minority rights Israel fares increasingly better than many democratic countries. Until 1965 the Israeli Arabs were under a military government and the two all-Arab parties in the Knesset during Labor’s rule were branches of the ruling party. Today there are three Arab parties which represent a variety of views. Gays in Israel successfully gained rights due to the ultra-liberal policies of the Supreme Court. There is definitely greater sensitivity and corresponding legislature for equality among women and disadvantaged groups.
A favorite address for criticism is one of Israel’s most important social institutions, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). It is accused of having disproportionate clout in the decision-making process and of breeding militarism in Israel’s society. Nothing is further from the truth.
The military’s highest ranks are no longer dominated by party card carriers. Labor convictions are no longer a necessary condition for being appointed to the position of chief-of-staff. The military actually became more representative of the demographic trends and the growing social mobility. Its ranks include new immigrants, Sephardi, and members of the national-religious camp, the latter making part of the Ashkenazi old elite feel uncomfortable.
Unlike in 1967, when some generals almost revolted against the government’s hesitations to strike first, in the post-Labor era the military displayed more professionalism and has actually been more obedient in accepting the judgment of the elected political leadership in decision-making. In October 1977, Begin ignored the warning of his chief-of-staff about the possibility of an Egyptian surprise attack during the visit of President Anwar Sadat. The military was kept in the dark during the negotiations of the September 1993 Oslo Accords. The military also recommended against the May 2000 unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon and the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. The three most important strategic decisions since 1993 were implemented despite the fact that the IDF did not support them, proving that Israel does not have an army-dominated militaristic government.
Israeli democracy is thriving and fares better on most scores that in the past. Not everything is perfect and there is always room for improvement. Yet the leftists that complain about Israeli democracy are basically “sore losers.” They have a difficult time internalizing that their wisdom is rejected by most Israelis. They are the ones that lost the faith in a basic democratic tenet: Israelis, like other people of the world, have the democratic right to elect their governments and change them if they do not deliver.
Shmuel Sandler is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies. Efraim Inbar is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, and Fellow at the Middle East Forum.