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A High-functioning Illiberal Democracy: Explaining Israel's Ranking in the Global Democracy Index

In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, the country’s strong showing is marred by the Chief Rabbinate’s hegemony and the way Israel treats the Palestinians and other minorities

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands by his wife Sara as she casts her ballot at a polling station in Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands by his wife Sara as she casts her ballot at a polling station in Jerusalem.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

So how democratic is Israel? Just a bit more than Belgium, a tiny bit less than France and exactly as much as Estonia.

Why compare Israel to these three countries? They score the closest to Israel on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index, a ranking of 167 countries and territories based on a long list of attributes that the compilers believe constitute a modern democracy. If you prefer it in numbers, Israel’s democracy ranks 30th in the world, with an average score of 7.79.

That may sound reassuring to anyone concerned that Israel’s democracy is eroding; after all, being in the top quarter of countries around the world surely can’t be too bad. On the other hand, any country with a score of 8.0 and under isn’t a “full democracy,” according to the index.

Only 19 countries, mainly Western European nations along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, score high enough to be described “full” democracies. Israel, along with the United States, Italy, Japan and France, are among the world’s 57 “flawed democracies.” If it’s any comfort, they’re pretty close to the top. Flawed, but less so.

Can democracy be measured in numbers? How can different countries with their histories, traditions and cultures be compared in such a way? Any such list by definition is arbitrary, the definition of democracy is controversial and the value attached to any of its components differs from country to country.

The Democracy Index’s compilers admit as much, but they’ve been publishing it annually for a decade now and refining the model, which currently aggregates 60 different indicators in five categories. Like any other statistical model it has its limitations, but a closer look at the numbers and methodology tells an interesting story as far as Israel is concerned.

So what makes a democracy? According to the index, Israel scores particularly high in the “electoral process and pluralism” category. This includes holding free and fair elections where the opposition has a realistic chance, the people enjoy universal suffrage, all parties have equal opportunities to campaign and the process is sufficiently transparent.

On these indicators, Israel scores an average of 9.17, the third highest tally. In the “political participation” category, which measures voter turnout, levels of participation and the representation of women and minorities, the public’s engagement in politics, freedom to protest and adult literacy, Israel scores 8.89. This isn’t just the second-highest score in the category, it’s surpassed by one country only, Norway, and equaled just by Iceland and New Zealand. In political participation, Israel is in the global top four.

If democracy were measured by the quality of the electoral process and level of political participation alone, Israel would be right at the top with the Scandinavians. But there are other categories, of course. In both the categories of “functioning of government” – the legislature’s power to influence policy, checks and balances, corruption and public confidence in the government – and “democratic political culture” – which measures societal cohesion and consensus and the public’s perceptions of and feelings toward democratic institutions – Israel’s score is more average at 7.50.

Still, taken together with the two categories in which it excels, Israel should have been good enough to win the “full democracy” badge. But then we get to the fifth category.

On civil liberties Israel scores only 5.88. And that’s low, even for a flawed democracy. In fact, you have to scroll down all the way to Malaysia in 59th place and Indonesia at 68 to find countries with weaker civil liberties. The dire situation becomes even more evident when you consider the factors that make up civil liberties; they include freedom of speech and expression and the existence of a free and robust media.

On these Israel has very high scores – the Democracy Index this year includes a separate freedom of speech and media ranking in which Israel scores 9 out of 10, and only 10 countries around the entire world get straight 10s. It’s all the rest of the civil liberties where Israel plunges beneath the world’s democracies – equality, human rights, religious tolerance, racial discrimination and personal freedoms.

In other words, if it weren’t for the Chief Rabbinate’s hegemony and the way Israel treats its non-Jewish minorities, especially the Palestinians, it would be a model democracy. But based on civil liberties alone, Israel has no right to call itself a democracy, even a flawed one.

Zoom out and you can give all manner of caveats and beg for extenuating circumstances. Israel’s critics will argue that since it exerts various levels of military control over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (Palestine has its own separate ranking on the Democracy Index at 108), it can’t be ranked as the 30th democracy in the world, flawed or otherwise.

Israel’s defenders will note that no allowances are made for the fact that Israel is surrounded by autocracies and that in its geographic group of the Middle East and North Africa it by far beats the rest, even in civil liberties. (With the exception of Tunisia, which equals Israel in civil liberties but is well below in all other categories). But is that the company Israel wants to find itself in when it comes to democracy?

No other country on the index has such a massive disparity between its levels of participation, the quality of its electoral process, its strong media and freedom of expression and its dismal civil liberties record. Essentially, Israel is the world’s only high-functioning illiberal democracy. Or as legislator Ahmad Tibi puts it, “democratic for Jews and Jewish for Arabs.”

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