How democratic is Israel? I mean, of course, Israel within the Green Line, so that’s “democratic” with a massive asterisk, which means “democratic, when putting aside the massive issue of millions of Palestinians under Israeli rule without any rights.” But aside from that, how democratic is Israel? (For the latest election polls – click here)
Well, putting aside the inequalities between Jewish and Arab citizens, the women held captive in marriage by rabbinical courts and the treatment of African migrants, Israel is very democratic. The international organizations that grade and monitor the levels of democracy, such as Freedom House, give Israel some of the highest rankings in the world on matters of political rights, participation and the robustness of its electoral system.
The trust of the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public — as has been proven in survey after survey — in the validity of the election results published by the Central Elections Committee is one of the most important assets of Israel’s fragile and limited democracy. It cannot be taken for granted that Israelis go to vote in the belief that whatever ballot they put in the box, it will be counted and recorded for what it is — and they rely on the authorities to maintain a clean and accurate tally. There are many countries, including some that call themselves democracies, where this isn’t the case.
Of all the things Benjamin Netanyahu has done over the years to erode the fundamentals of Israeli democracy, his current campaign to impugn the electoral process is potentially the most dangerous. The exaggerated and targeted claims of wholesale fraud in the Arab community and the accusation that the election result in April was “stolen” and could be again on September 17, is, to use a phrase Netanyahu coined recently in a different context, “a terror attack against democracy.”
If Israelis cannot be confident that their vote counts, then why vote? If the most crucial component of a democracy — faith in elections — is removed, then why abide by any democratic norms?
The trust in the electoral system was built with great effort over 21 Knesset elections, since the first in 1949. The Central Elections Committee, headed by Supreme Court justices, was careful to involve the representatives of all the parties in the process of managing and monitoring the voting and counting. When there have been complaints of fraud, they have been checked, and in some cases investigated and prosecuted. Trust in the process is not blind faith. It is trust in a transparent system that corrects itself, and the broader system has never been tainted. Until now.
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Netanyahu has two aims in questioning the election results: Creating a cloud of suspicion over the Arab population, in the hope of suppressing and intimidating its voters and keeping turnout low; and exhorting his own voters — many of whom lack the motivation to go to the polling booths next week, as Likud focus groups have found — to prevent another “theft.”
The damage goes way beyond the barely concealed racism and the fact that the allegations are simply not true. There are cases of fraud — and yes, they do exist in the Arab community. But they also exist in other more segregated parts of Israeli society, including the ultra-Orthodox communities and in the settlements. Transparency and integrity should always be improved. Three weeks ago, Haaretz published an investigation showing irregularities at dozens of polling stations, which need to be addressed. But there is a vast distance between the necessary corrections and casting doubt on an entire community and the validity of the results.
Israel’s democracy is rapidly losing its few remaining liberal values. Now it is beginning to lose what it still has: its electoral essence.
Since his earliest days as a politician over three decades ago, Netanyahu has been in favor of a presidential system of governance — but without insisting on a constitution to check and balance the president’s power. He sees the Israeli parliament as an unnecessary nuisance. In recent years, he has described every perfectly legal and legitimate attempt to replace him as a “coup.”
As far as he’s concerned, the only purpose of an election is to confirm his personal mandate to rule. He ignores the fact that, under his leadership, Likud has never won more than 26 percent of the total vote and has certainly never been close to achieving a majority. He has no use for Israel’s system of proportional representation and its coalition-style governments. He constantly speaks of himself as having been directly elected by the people, despite the fact that Israel directly elected a prime minister in only three elections before abandoning that experiment. He was directly elected once, by a margin of 1 percent, over Shimon Peres, and lost once, beaten by Ehud Barak by 12 percent.
And yet Netanyahu still regrets the Knesset’s decision to return to a parliamentary system, and continues to consider himself the nation’s chosen one. But he has failed to motivate any of his governing coalitions to change the system back. Instead, he is acting in other ways to subvert Israeli democracy, which has the Knesset at its center and the prime minister, as first among equals, ruling at the Knesset’s pleasure — and at any moment liable to be replaced by one of his colleagues. Now, Netanyahu wants Israelis to suspect that his Knesset colleagues are there on the basis of “stolen” votes.
There is a direct line connecting Netanyahu’s attempt to taint the election process and result, and his other attacks on Israeli democracy. While Israel continues to occupy another nation, its official rabbinical courts hold women captive in abusive marriages, and political refugees are not granted asylum, we can at least take pride in being the only country in the world where a prime minister and president have been charged, convicted and sent to prison for their crimes, without a coup, through a full legal process. Instead, Netanyahu has targeted the remaining strongholds of Israeli democracy and is weakening the independent courts and law enforcement agencies. He has spent the best part of the last decade trying to subvert one of the freest and most combative media in the world, by suborning and allegedly bribing the press barons. A robust and fair electoral system that ensured the orderly change of governments (half of the first 20 elections were won by the center-left, and half by the right; the 21st was a stalemate) is now besmirched.
Netanyahu’s predecessor, Menachem Begin, led Likud (and, before that, Herut) to eight consecutive election defeats. He never claimed the polls were rigged against him. His victory in 1977, at the ninth attempt, could not have been more legitimate. Netanyahu is now signaling to the Israeli public that its elections are no longer legitimate, because they might bring about the end of his rule.