Opinion |

Does Netanyahu Really Believe in Democracy? Global Freedom Experts Aren't Sure

Tunisia speeds past Israel’s ailing democracy, even before COVID-19. Netanyahu has ‘anti-democratic tendencies.’ Hungary and Poland protect civil liberties better: How the big three democracy indexes assess Israel

Anders Persson
Anders Persson
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Protesters against 'weakening Israel's democracy' near the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 23 2020
Protesters, waving black flags, demonstrate against 'weakening Israel's democracy' under cover of the coronavirus crisis near the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 23 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Anders Persson
Anders Persson

With the release of V-Dem’s democracy report last Friday, all the three big democracy rating indexes have published their yearly reports for 2020 (their data covers 2019). It is bleak reading – and that does not count the likely even more negative fallout for the world’s democracies that may emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession that will surely follow.

The three reports unanimously paint a picture of intensifying autocratization around the world - from Brazil to India to the U.S. to Europe - with Hungary now being the first non-democratic Member State of the EU.

According to V-Dem’s latest report, the majority or the world’s states are no longer democracies and only 46 percent of the world’s population are now living in electoral and liberal democracies. Freedom House’s flagship publication, the "Freedom in the World Report for 2020," found that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

All regime types were affected by this decline and more than half of the countries that were rated Free or Not Free in 2009 have suffered a net decline in the past decade, according to Freedom House. The Economist Democracy Index reported the worst average global score since the index was first produced in 2006.

So how did Israel fare in this dark hour for liberal democracy? Like last year, Israel ‘s scores were a mixed bag; from again receiving its worst rating ever from Freedom House, to receiving the same, relatively bad rating from V-Dem as it received last year, to again receiving its best rating ever from The Economist Democracy Index. The discrepancies can be explained by looking at the various rating indexes measurements and methodologies, which all rely on expert coding.

Freedom House, the most well-known of the big three rating indexes, gave Israel its worst rating ever since its flagship publication the Freedom in the World began in 1973. Freedom House lowered Israel’s aggregated score from 78/100 last year to 76/100 this year.

Freedom House rating for Israel, 2019Credit: Twitter

The decline in Israel’s rating took place in the category "Functioning of Government" because the two successive elections in 2019 (plus one this year) failed to produce a new government, leaving the existing government in place as a caretaker. Israel’s rating was also downgraded because caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was indicted on multiple corruption charges in 2019, refused to step down and instead ran for reelection, while attacking the credibility of law enforcement institutions.

The Freedom in the World 2020 report noted that "Israel’s score has slipped six points, an unusually large decline for an established democracy." In fact, since 2011, Freedom House’s reports have warned about successive anti-democratic laws that were advanced or enacted in the Israeli parliament.

The latest report also came down hard on Netanyahu personally by accusing him of having "anti-democratic tendencies." These ant-idemocratic tendencies were laid bare for all to see in the past week when Netanyahu and his Likud party managed to postpone his trial and frantically tried to suspend the Israeli parliament from properly functioning in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

All of this, of course, raises serious questions: Are the Likud party and the (caretaker) prime minister really true democrats?

V-Dem, the most academic of the three rating indexes, ranks Israel as holding the 49th place out of 179 countries on its Liberal Democracy Index. Israel’s score was marginally improved compared to last year, but what was most surprising about this year’s report was that Tunisia made a great leap forward to placing itself 41 out of 179 on the Liberal Democracy Index. This means that Tunisia now ranks as the most liberal and democratic country in the Middle East on V-Dem’s ranking, seven places in front of Israel; Kuwait (106/179) is the region’s distant third.

A somewhat different picture emerges, as usual, from The Economist Democracy Index, which historically has ranked Israel higher than the other two indexes. Israel is well ahead of Tunisia on both The Economist’s and Freedom House’s indexes. This year Israel is ranked 28 out of 167, and it actually received its best aggregated score ever in this year’s index from The Economist.

How The Economist has rated Israel's democracy 2006-2019Credit: Anders Persson

The reason for this is that Israel improved, somewhat paradoxically in this author’s opinion, in the category "Functioning of Government," despite the fact that Israel has not had a functioning government for the past year. Also, worth noting is that Israel scores low in the "Civil Liberties" category, which is a common theme in all the three indexes. In The Economist Democracy Index, Israel’s Civil Liberties score is exactly the same as Tunisia, but far lower than all the EU Member States, even including Hungary and Poland.

Just like Netanyahu is widely considered, in the words of Freedom House’s report, to be "at the vanguard of nationalistic and chauvinistic populism," he may turn out to be at the vanguard of manipulating the COVID-19 pandemic to prolong his stay in office as well. Leading democracy experts are currently warning that the COVID-19 pandemicis a golden opportunity for would be autocrats to consolidate their hold on power by imposing restrictions on their societies. Some of them are already pointing fingers at Netanyahu.

As for the threats to Israel’s democracy, the internal data from Israel can be read in two ways. One is negative, where there is an increasing fear that Israel’s democracy is in grave danger. According to data from the Israel Democracy Institute, the total number of Israelis who felt "very much" that their country’s democracy is in grave danger rose by almost 50 percent from 22.5 percent of the total population in 2018 to 32 percent of the population in 2019.

A staggering 84.5 percent of Israeli Jews defined as left-wing, 68 percent of those in the center, while just 29 percent of those to the right agree (very much or quite a lot) that Israeli democracy is in grave danger.

A protest outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem against the 'assault on democracy', Thursday, March 19, 2020.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky,AP

On the other hand, Israel has just gone through three highly contested, free and fair elections in less than year, with increasing turnouts in the last two, especially among the Arab minority. All of this must be seen as evidence of the strength of Israel’s democratic character. The support among Israelis for key institutions such as the Supreme Court is still almost four times higher than for the political parties, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.

Alongside the democratic decline and intensifying autocratization in the world, all the three rating indexes reported massive upswings for popular protests across the world - from the Americas, to Africa and the Middle East, to Asia, to Europe and Russia. V-Dem writes that 2019 was without a doubt the "year of global protests" with pro-democracy protests rising to an all-time high. Freedom House argues that the protests movements reflect "the inexhaustible and universal desire for fundamental rights."

There can be little doubt that the present situation in Israel reflects these global trends, with pro-democracy protests outside the Knesset last week and this, alongside warnings from many prominent commentators, including President Reuven Rivlin, that Israel’s democracy is under threat.

It is still too early to say how the present constitutional crisis in Israel will play out – and how far the coronavirus crisis will push legal and political norms to their limits, or beyond them. But what is certain is that while there are multiplying dangers for liberal democracy, there is still a substantial popular will to fight for it, in Israel and around the world.

Anders Persson is a political scientist at Linnaeus University, Sweden, specializing in EU-Israel/Palestine relations. Twitter: @82AndersPersson

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