Strong right wing or not, Israel will remain a liberal democracy
The coming Knesset will have a sizable center-left bloc, and it is to be hoped that its leaders will understand that it is part of their civic and political duty to oppose any legislation that undermines the pillars of the liberal order.
The most striking aspect of Israel's current election campaign is that Meretz is the only Jewish party that dares to call itself left, and that Labor chair Shelly Yacimovich is making huge efforts to prove that Labor isn’t, and has never been a left-wing party.
Israel’s political system seems completely out of balance: you have a very heavy right, a relatively thin center, and a virtually non-existent left. If you picture this physically, you have a structure that is likely to keel over.
Could it be that Israel’s democracy will collapse into some kind of non-liberal extreme-right regime? This worries many Israeli liberals; you hear it in private conversations, and the pages of Haaretz are filled with anxious articles about threats to Israel’s democracy. It might therefore be a good idea to look at the question dispassionately.
Psychological research since the famous cognitive dissonance paradigm of the 1950s has shown, time and again, that human beings cannot bear ongoing conflict for a long time. If we hold two contradictory beliefs, at some point we must change one of them, because we cannot bear the cognitive dissonance. Israelis are faced with an ongoing, profound dissonance by holding the following beliefs: most of them believe that Israel should be democratic; that Israel should be a Jewish state; and that there is no solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict that does not imply certain risks for Israel’s security.
The trademark of Israel’s political left has been to put this conflict on the table starkly. It has told Israelis: “If Israel hangs on to the West Bank it will either cease being Jewish or Democratic – and this is why we need to take a certain security risk for the sake of the future.” The current election campaign shows that Israelis simply can’t bear hearing this anymore. As a result, “left” has become a curse word for most Israelis, and no mainstream party wants to be called “left”.
How does the majority of Israelis resolve the dissonance between “Jewish and Democratic” and “Holding on to the West Bank?” Not surprisingly, an in-depth piece of research by the Israel Democracy Institute conducted this year shows that Israelis are willing to curtail democracy when it comes to Arabs and to left-wing criticism of Israel. This is how they resolve the cognitive dissonance. The recent attempts by Likud and Yisrael Beitenu to curtail freedom of expression reflect this: Many Israelis finally want the left to shut up. They no longer want to be faced with a conflict they do not know how to resolve.
This is indeed dangerous for Israel’s democracy. The resolution of cognitive dissonance often leads to regressive modes of thought: The yearning for simple solutions of complex problems can produce the wish for a strong leader who can be followed blindly, who will just take care of things. It also requires black-and-white truths, mostly an ideology that glorifies the nation, the people and its connection to the land. This has happened in Europe during the 20th century a number of times: countries like Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Greece went through periods with non-democratic regimes when they were incapable of resolving internal and external conflicts.
The question is whether Israel will go through such a period as well. If, for example, external pressure on Israel increases, or if the security situation deteriorates, the yearning for simple solutions could lead to legislation that curtails freedom of expression and academic freedom, and would forbid criticism that ‘harms the state’ or ‘expresses disloyalty to Israel as a Jewish country’. The last four years have already brought such attempts.
And yet I am optimistic: The coming Knesset will have a sizable center-left bloc, and it is to be hoped that Yacimovich, Livni, and Lapid will understand that it is part of their civic and political duty to oppose any legislation that undermines the pillars of the liberal order, whether from within the coalition or as opposition. If they do so vigorously and without flinching, it will be much more difficult for the likes of Danny Danon, Ze'ev Elkin, and Yariv Levin to resume their streak of anti-liberal legislation.
In the long run, I am optimistic about Israel’s democracy for a very simple reason. Israel’s anti-liberal forces have no common denominator except the demonization of the left and hatred of Arabs. Lieberman’s agenda is profoundly secular, whereas ultra-orthodoxy and parts of the national-religious camp want a theocracy. They will not be capable of unifying behind a common agenda, and probably not behind a common supreme leader they can follow blindly. Moreover the various religious sectors will realize that they cannot reach consensus about which type of religious regime they want.
They will find out that, paradoxically, they can only live in a liberal democracy. After all, this system was invented precisely to enable groups with different beliefs to live in the same polity without being perpetually at war. Therefore, at some point, the current illiberal forces will find out that they have no way around liberal democracy.
The question is how Israel’s voters can be convinced that it is worth taking risks to preserve Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jews, and to salvage the liberal Zionist project. A recent poll shows that to this day two-thirds of Israel’s general public would support an agreement with the Palestinians that safeguards Israel’s security, and they are even willing to partition Jerusalem under these conditions. That much is consistent with earlier research. But the surprising finding of this new poll is that 57 percent of the voters of Likud-Beitenu and Habayit Hayehudi would support such an agreement as well, even though Habayit Hayehudi is explicitly in favor of Israel’s annexation of large parts of the West Bank!
This is a very interesting finding, because it shows that most Israelis who vote for the right do so out of fear for their safety, rather than out of ideology. The great challenge for organizations like the Israel Peace Initiative is to find creative ways to convince Israelis that there are safe ways to reach and implement such an agreement, and this will be the task of my writing for this coming year.