How Three Elections Exposed All the Diseases Ravaging Israeli Democracy

Monday’s vote seems unlikely to break the political deadlock – but has succeeded in shattering Israelis’ trust in the electoral system

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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past a Likud election campaign poster depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem February 25, 2020.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past a Likud election campaign poster depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem February 25, 2020. Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS
Dahlia Scheindlin
Dahlia Scheindlin

Israel’s third election in less than a year is nearly here. Save for one lone poll last December, over 70 election surveys show that neither the pro-Netanyahu right-wing bloc nor the opposition bloc wins a majority of Knesset seats.

Minor shifts in the final days could put Likud ahead of Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan. But if broad trends continue, Monday’s vote could end in deadlock and might – halila – lead to a fourth election.

This electoral debacle shines a spotlight on one of the many things that have gone terribly wrong in Israel’s political culture and institutions.

The electoral institution as a means to form a representative government has already failed its citizens. Twice, Israeli voters marched dutifully to the polls, with a healthy turnout that rose from 68.5 percent last April to over 69 percent in September. Voters also footed the bill for three grating political campaigns with public funding.

Yet the country’s fate now depends on five Jewish men – Benjamin Netanyahu, Gantz, Avigdor Lieberman, Arye Dery and Naftali Bennett. This is no representative sample of the Israeli people: none of the leaders are Arab; only one is Mizrahi; none are Ethiopian Israeli. None are women.

A year of failure has damaged public trust in the electoral institution considerably. According to the Israel Democracy Institute, prior to the April election, just over one-quarter of Israelis said they had little or no trust in the integrity of the election. Now, nearly four in 10 Israelis do not trust in the integrity of the election, up 11 percentage points in a year.

If trust in elections goes, what’s left?

After a decade of right-wing leadership that undermined civil society, the judiciary, minorities and the media, at least one global comparative study by project V-Dem, cited by the Israeli Democracy Index of 2018, demoted Israel’s standing as a liberal democracy committed to individual rights, to that of an “electoral democracy.” The distinction highlights Israel’s creep toward what might be called a majoritarian democracy, at the expense of institutional protections for minorities or normal constraints on a single branch of government.

Doubts about elections are leading to dark forecasts for the future. Again, data from the Israel Democracy Institute show that last April, 54 percent of Israelis felt optimistic about the future of democracy in the country – but there has been a clear downward trend since.

Last November, after the indictment of the prime minister, optimism about Israeli democracy sunk to a new low of just 32 percent. At least part of this drop likely came from right-wing Israelis who believe the legal authorities, including the Supreme Court, have committed a politicized coup against their elected leader, trouncing the true will of the people. These citizens reflect and concur with Netanyahu’s own vicious attacks on law enforcement bodies.

Perhaps the right-wing politicians are right, and the judiciary is guilty as accused? What’s missing from this picture is that the public still trusts the courts at far higher rates than politicians themselves.

In the 2019 Democracy Index, 55 percent of Israelis expressed trust in the Supreme Court (although the number has certainly declined over the years). But compare that to politicians: Only 29 percent of Israelis trust the Knesset and 30 percent trust the government, and those figures are double the abysmal level of trust for political parties – just 15 percent in 2019. These findings turn Netanyahu’s grand narrative about a deep state of unrepresentative elites crushing the will of the people into a farce.

Perhaps most importantly, the right-wing public does not agree with itself on the evils of the judiciary. When the Israel Democracy Institute conducted a survey of right-wing Israeli Jews in August 2019, it found that 43 percent of right-wingers reject strengthening political power at the expense of the judiciary. Fully two-thirds support the Supreme Court continuing to exercise judicial review – among right-wingers!

Why the opposition parties failed to leverage this deep division among the right over protecting versus weakening the rule – and role – of law in a democracy is inexplicable.

Only after three election campaigns and just ahead of the next vote did Kahol Lavan finally start campaigning seriously against the erosion of the rule of law by comparing Netanyahu to Turkey’s despotic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (among other statements). Analysts think the late-hour tactics reflect Kahol Lavan’s last-ditch appeal to the left. But salvaging the judiciary, legitimizing law and democracy should have been the opposition’s greatest appeal to the right.

If just 30 percent of right-wingers trust the courts, there is a real problem. But that number calculates broadly to about 15 percent of the electorate – a number Kahol Lavan would kill to have on its side. Insisting that Gantz can outdo Netanyahu on security or diplomacy was folly from the start.

If Netanyahu finagles yet another term on Monday, there can be no mistaking the direction he will take – because he has already chosen his path. The judiciary will suffer, along with the police, the state prosecutor and the attorney general. The remaining foundations of democracy in Israel will crumble faster.

If Kahol Lavan leads the next government, its strange brew of centrist and right-wing figures must make resurrecting the legitimacy of law and democracy as an urgent, even emergency, priority.

Eventually, the long-term effects of strong liberal democratic institutions and ideas – courts, civil society, freedom and protections for minorities, education for civics and civil rights – will benefit all the people Israel governs.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political scientist and public opinion expert. She has consulted on eight national campaigns in Israel, and conducted research for the Joint List in the current campaign.

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