Opinion |

Can Bennett and Lapid Really Rebrand Israel as a Liberal Democracy?

With Netanyahu finally out and Tunisia stumbling, Israel's new coalition leaders are keen to regain the title of the only democracy in the Middle East, to the relief of many of its allies. There's only one problem

Anders Persson
Anders Persson
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Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem this week
Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem this weekCredit: RONEN ZVULUN - AFP
Anders Persson
Anders Persson

Twelve long consecutive years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule left deep scars in Israel’s democratic fabric, including in its status as a liberal democracy.

Between 2009 and 2020, Israel suffered "an unusually large decline for an established democracy," according to Freedom House. There were two main reasons for this decline: the adoption of illiberal laws in the Knesset and the increasing authoritarian tendencies of former Prime Minister Netanyahu himself.

In 2018, V-Dem, the world’s leading academic democracy rating index, downgraded Israel from "liberal democracy" to "electoral democracy." In the same report, it upgraded Tunisia to a "liberal democracy," the only liberal democracy in the Middle East at the time. V-Dem has since restored Israel’s status back to being rated as a "liberal democracy."

The third of the three large democracy rating indexes, The Economist Democracy Index, has always rated Israel as a "flawed democracy" with civil liberties far lower than in all EU countries, including Hungary.  

People walk next to a billboard for Kahol Lavan showing Netanyahu and members of his coalition in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2020. Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

With Netanyahu gone, one of the most important tasks for the Bennett/Lapid government is to rebrand Israel as a liberal democracy. Being seen as a liberal democracy is without a doubt the most important part of Israel’s hasbara, or public diplomacy, strategy and Israeli prime ministers have historically gone out their ways to portray Israel as "the only democracy in the Middle East," conveniently ignoring that Tunisia too (at least until the recent shock dismissal of the country’s prime minister and suspension of parliament) was rated as a democracy by all the leading rating indexes.

Bennett and Lapid are no exceptions here. Just before he became Prime Minister, Bennett told MSNBC that "Israel is the only true democracy in this region." Lapid has used similar phrases in the past, but last week, he told a group of journalists in a briefing that Israel needed to "reframe its image as a liberal democracy."

His recent trip to Brussels is a clear sign that Israel now wants to realign itself more closely with the EU, the world’s largest bloc of liberal democracies. Addressing the EU Foreign Affairs Council, he doubled down: "I believe in the power of liberal democracies," he declared, and extrolled both the interests and values Israel and the EU share in common, from human rights to a free press, an independent judiciary, a strong civil society and freedom of religion. 

Being closely allied with the EU is even more important at a time when sympathy for Israel is waning in the Democratic party in the U.S. and among liberals and progressives more generally.

The big question then is: Can Bennett and Lapid turn the ship around and rebrand Israel as a liberal democracy? They'll certainly get a helping hand from the international community.

Both American and European officials have warmly welcomed Bennett and Lapid’s election victory and the new Israeli government can expect a long period of grace, probably covering its entire mandate, from the international community.

This is in part because the U.S. administration and most of the EU don't want Netanyahu to return to power, but also because the new eight-party Israeli government represents an interesting political project, with an Arab party for the first time directly included in the coalition. It is very unusual but not unique in the democratic world with an eight-party government. Italy’s Amato II government of 2000 had nine parties, Latvia’s Skele government of 1995 also had eight parties, as had the Hosokawa government of 1993 in Japan.

Ra'am: Mansour Abbas, Labour: Merav Michaeli, Kachol Lavan: Benny Gantz, Yesh Atid: Yair Lapid, Yamina: Naftali Bennett, New Hope: Gideon Saar, Yisrael Beitenu: Lieberman, Meretz: Nitzan HorowitzCredit: HANDOUT/ REUTERS

Many European political scientists like myself are also impressed that Bennett and Lapid managed to oust Netanyahu democratically without violence, a prospect which was not at all certain after the March 2020 elections, when the Likud party initially did not certify the result, and the acceleration of its disinformation and 'stop the steal' efforts before the March 2021 elections.  

There are also challenges for rebranding Israel as a liberal democracy. Some of these are new, like the recent Pegasus spyware scandal involving the Israeli NSO company, which has helped governments around the world to spy on dissidents, journalists and others. By giving these companies licenses to export their spyware, the Israeli government is enabling human rights abuses, weakening democracies and making authoritarian countries even more authoritarian

The spyware scandal has turned Israel into a force for global authoritarianism rather than liberalism. Some of the benefactors of Israeli spyware exports are countries like the UAE and Morocco, which are partners to the Abraham Accords.

India's Congress party workers are detained by security forces in New Delhi last month at a protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP-led government's alleged use of Pegasus spywareCredit: PRAKASH SINGH - AFP

It is worth keeping in mind here that both Egypt and Jordan are less free and more authoritarian today than when they signed their peace treaties with Israel, according to Freedom House’s data. Will we see the same decline in the countries that have recently signed peace and normalization agreements with Israel?

The biggest challenge, however, for rebranding Israel as a liberal democracy is the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories, which is rapidly being redefined by leading human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem from a conflict between two parties to a permanent situation of occupation, oppression, human rights abuses and even apartheid.

The argument from leading voices of this narrative, such as Nathan Thrall, is that apartheid states cannot be democracies. If the leading democracy rating indexes adopt this view, it will have dire consequences for Israel’s ratings - and Lapid's branding battle.

It is not yet clear how the Bennett/Lapid government will approach the Palestinian issue. Many reports in the media suggest that the new government will adopt the Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman’s strategy of shrinking the conflict without ending the occupation. The international community may embrace this strategy as the best that can be done under the present circumstances.

At the same time, the Israeli government’s fierce pushback against Ben & Jerry’s decision to no longer sell its products in Israeli settlements clearly shows its determination to defend the occupation and the settlements, even with illiberal measures such as the anti-boycott laws in U.S. states.

But as past illiberal laws in the Knesset have shown, the more illiberal measures the Israeli government deploys to protect the occupation and the settlements, the harder it will be for Bennett and Lapid to rebrand Israel as a liberal democracy – and the further Israel will actually be from that definition in practice.

Anders Persson is a political scientist at Linnaeus University, Sweden, specializing in EU-Israel/Palestine relations. His latest book, "EU Diplomacy and the Israeli-Arab Conflict, 1967–2019," was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2020. Twitter: @82AndersPersson

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