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Israel's Last Election Before It Becomes an Illiberal Democracy

Preserving Israel’s democratic institutions, independent judiciary and free press must take precedence above all else. Including peace with the Palestinians

Steven Klein
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Israeli border police officers stand guard next to posters depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Hatikva market in Tel Aviv, Israel. April 2, 2019
Israeli border police officers stand guard next to posters depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Hatikva market in Tel Aviv, Israel. April 2, 2019Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Steven Klein

While pollsters and pundits love to divide the election camps into center-left and right, they are missing the most critical issue dividing Israel’s political culture: how political parties across the spectrum relate to core democratic values and institutions. 

The country's next governing coalition isn't about whether there will be a two-state solution, but whether Israel is about to join the unsavory club of illiberal democracies.

This is a paradigm shift that every Israeli political party committed to democratic values, Jewish or Arab, must internalize. The growth of anti-liberal forces in the Jewish state make it vital that those parties prize the preservation of Israel’s liberal democratic institutions above all else - including the peace process with the Palestinians.

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To understand the scope of this threat, you have to understand that the resilience of modern democracies depends on the health of their liberal institutions, such as the courts, regulators and the free press, which serve as a check on power.

These institutions are essentially "undemocratic," in that they are not directly elected by the people, yet the founders of modern democracies understood they must remain outside the direct reach of voters and their representatives in order to maintain the independence required to prevent their countries’ rulers from abusing their power.

To be clear, Israel is not a liberal democracy, but rather an ethnic democracy, structured to maintain Jewish hegemony. However, it has until now always had liberal institutions, like the High Court, that have preserved and protected residents' basic civil and human rights. That could all change after this election.

Make no mistake, another right-wing coalition would deal irreparable damage to these institutions in Israel, first and foremost the Supreme Court. If made justice minister again, Ayelet Shaked would politicize the court system, and once that system is broke, it can’t be fixed.

And that is why her campaign is so deceptively appealing; by allowing politicians to appoint judges, she gives the impression that she is making the court system more "democratic." But the result would be the courts becoming subservient to the other branches of government, thus enabling the tyranny of the majority.

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem January 27, 2019
Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem January 27, 2019Credit: Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS

The long-term result will be an erosion of rights for anyone who opposes the worldview of the Israeli government.

Just look at who Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced with such enthusiasm – Hungary, Poland, Russia, India, and lately Guatemala, Honduras, the Philippines and Brazil. What these countries all share is that they have populist leaders who were swept into power on promises of restoring their countries to greatness only to attack their countries’ liberal institutions and erode civil rights over time.

According to the Economist’s Democracy Index, civil rights have eroded precipitously in all these countries since 2006. (Bibi loves Trump, too, but America's liberal institutions are, so far, more resilient.)

So, who is who in this paradigm shift from left-right to liberal-anti-liberal? Note that liberal here doesn’t mean pro-choice, pro-pot and anti-war but the classic liberal sense of supporting institutions that provide checks and balance over government. 

In that sense, the only liberal parties left standing are Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, Labor, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, Meretz, Hadash-Ta’al and Gesher (if it passes the electoral threshold).

Likud, whose ideological father Zeev Jabotinsky was a dedicated liberal, now leads an anti-liberal coalition that includes all the other right-wing parties. Zehut seems to support individual rights, but is willing to violate those rights in the name of security.

Perhaps surprisingly, the ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas are neutral. They could do without liberal institutions, but their interests are focused on bolstering their communities with government resources; they want to maintain an Orthodox monopoly when it comes to religion and state issues but they are not obsessed with weakening democratic institutions like Netanyahu, Shaked or Smotrich.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. March 31, 2019
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. March 31, 2019Credit: AFP

If you do the math, the only coalition that could unseat Netanyahu and protect Israel from the undemocratic forces he would allow into government would consist of Kahol Lavan, Labor, Kulanu, Meretz, Shas and UTJ. While such a coalition is a longshot, there is no other way. 

The liberal parties have a blocking majority, but only if they unite in the name of the rule of law and protection of Israel's democratic institutions.

How could such a coalition be forged? 

It starts with the left admitting defeat and recognizing that Israeli society has permanently shifted to the right. The left must recognize that we can’t even begin to talk about peace with our neighbors if we can’t put our own house in order. Leftist Meretz’s top priority must be finding a way to help govern and help stabilize Israel’s democratic institutions. If it insists on a peace agenda that prevents such a coalition, it will lose much more.

There won’t be Peace Now, or peace later, if Israel turns into an illiberal nationalist-populist state.

A coalition to save Israel’s democracy also needs Moshe Kahlon to take a stand. He needs to show he’ll put muscle behind his use of Menachem Begin’s image in Kulanu’s campaign ads. Begin, a disciple of Jabotinsky, would never have tolerated the corruption now rampant in his Likud party. But Kahlon is still willing to serve under Netanyahu until an actual indictment is served against him.

That weak position, the same as all the other right-wing parties, may be his political undoing. Standing up to Netanyahu, especially before the election, would make Kulanu the address for right-wing voters disturbed by Netanyahu’s corruption and attacks on the media and the courts.

Regardless of his pre-election strategy, Kahlon must realize the danger to democracy of joining an anti-liberal coalition, and lend a hand to the forging of a pro-liberal coalition that reflects what he says are the values of his party.

Such a coalition also requires politicians normally hostile to the ultra-religious parties, be it Tamar Zandberg or Yair Lapid, to swallow their pride and recognize the bargaining power of the ultra-Orthodox parties. Both Likud and Kahol Lavan need them to form a coalition, so their price will be high.

Pay it. Whatever Likud offers, add 10 percent. The future of Israel’s democracy is worth the price.

Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University’s International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Twitter: @stevekhaaretz

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