Analysis |

Israel Election: On the Verge of an Illiberal Democracy

The danger is not of a coup d'etat, an overnight installation of a dictatorship or a drastic wholesale suspension of civil rights. Rather, it comes in the form of a gradual diminishing and weakening of democracy

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Alon Pinkas
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Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, last week
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, last weekCredit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

At this point, you probably know: It’s all about 61. Nothing else matters.

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Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeed or fail in forming a 61-seat coalition consisting of the right wing; the extreme right wing; the racist, homophobic, xenophobic and misogynistic right wing and the ultra-Orthodox? This coalition, he hopes, will provide him immunity from trial through retroactive legislation and continue the assault on Israeli democracy.

Israel is approaching a “Weimar moment” of democratic crisis: a point of inflection with an equal probability of following either of the two paths is presents. That is what it this election is all about.

Exactly how many Knesset seats each party will receive is of great interest only to lower-slated candidates, election handicappers and hyperventilating political pundits. The one and only important question for the broader public is whether  Netanyahu and his allies will have the magical number of 61, enabling him to form his immunity-granting coalition.

This election is not contested over the right-left fault line. It is not about a Palestinian state, nor about the future of the territories and borders. It is not about the state of the economy or gross inequality, and despite the daunting background of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not about public health and the government’s mismanagement of the crisis.

What you need to know about Israel's unprecedented election: WATCH Haaretz's special briefing

It is about Israeli democracy.

Every election in Israel’s political history, since the first election in 1949, has been heralded with pathos as “critical,” “formative,” “historic,” “defining” or “fateful.” But never before was an election straightforwardly about the very existence of Israeli democracy, which makes it all of the above.

In the history of Israel’s fragile democracy, there have always been cracks, flaws, dangers and crises, but never was the threat to liberal democracy so ominous and real as it is today.  

The danger is not of a coup d’etat, an overnight installation of a dictatorship or a drastic wholesale suspension of civil rights. Rather, it comes in the form of a gradual diminishing and weakening of democracy, directed by a prime minister who does it for his own personal political and legal reasons.

What exactly constitutes a Weimar moment? In short, it’s a dismal failure of democracy. Naturally, Israel’s current predicament is not historically analogous to the events and processes in the German Weimar Republic. Instead, the similarity lies in the state of democracy and how it is perceived.

Tens of thousands of anti-Netanyahu protesters gathered outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, Saturday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It is a historical tipping point in which a relentless assault on an already fragile democracy and its institutions finally manages to crack it and change its very nature, dynamic and direction. It moves the state's form of government to some point on the spectrum between “illiberal democracy” and “benign authoritarianism.” Israel is on the precipice of that point.

Despite being used profusely, the term "illiberal democracy" is in essence contradictory. A democracy cannot be illiberal, since its basic tenets are by definition and nature liberal. If it degenerates into illiberalism, it effectively ceases to be a democracy, while maintaining the appearance and illusion through formal processes such as elections.

A democracy is not simply majority rule. It is a prerequisite, but there also needs to be an independent judiciary, a functioning court system free of political pressure, inalienable constitutional rights, the right of appeal, a free press, an effective set of checks and balances, gatekeepers not subjected to and undeterred by political intimidation and academic freedom.

The evolution of the illiberal democracy is a 21st century phenomenon. These are democracies that are deliberately weakened from within by democratically elected – but patently undemocratic – leaders. They steadily and aggressively target liberal processes and institutions. They question and attack the legitimacy of elections, they undermine the judiciary, they accuse elites of controlling the system, they intimidate the bureaucracy tasked with maintaining checks and balances, they depict criticism and opposition as unpatriotic, they wage total war on the press and they blame problems on supposed foreign interference.

The anti-democratic assault is aided and exacerbated by two types of public attitudes: growing apathy by segments who no longer believe democracy is working for them and, worse still, a sizable group in society content with “less democracy,” so long as they feel their quality of life is not diminished. 

These formal but hollow democracies, such as those of Hungary, Poland and Turkey, descend into an illiberal state. They are not fully authoritarian, but they are also no longer functioning liberal democracies.

Israel is not there yet, but a Netanyahu-right-wing-racist-extremists-ultra-Orthodox coalition puts it on a trajectory leading to that dubious realm.

Under this kind of government, the attorney general will be fired and replaced by a convenient yes man who will cancel Netanyahu's indictment. The current status-quo around religious issues will be disrupted, legislation reversing the rights of Arab citizens and the LGBT community will be presented regularly, and the Supreme Court will be weakened to a point where it won't be able to protect the civil rights that will come under assault.

The majority of the public is resoundingly against this possible future. In several polls, an average of 58 percent of Israelis does not want Netanyahu to remain prime minister. This is not because of a specific foreign, defense or domestic policy, but because of his alleged corruption and the war he is waging against Israeli democracy.

An aggregate average of polls along the anti-Netanyahu versus pro-Netanyahu dividing line shows a consistent 45 to 55 percent split, with the majority of the public opposed to the incumbent prime minister. But this indicates nothing in terms of the election results and the possibility of forming a coalition.

The Israeli electoral system, the political fragmentation and the endemic weakness in leadership among the left and center left may produce the exact coalition that a majority rejects, and put Israel on an irreversible course toward a quasi-democracy.

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