Is Israeli democracy in crisis (again)?

There are plenty of problems with the Jewish state’s electoral system, but what critics are really angry about is that Netanyahu might win again.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media on May 30, 2019. Credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media on May 30, 2019. Credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Israelis are rightly infuriated that their politicians couldn’t get their act together and form a government after national elections held on April 9. A rerun scheduled for Sept. 17 will be an enormous waste of time and money. But almost as infuriating as the new election is the way this turn of events will serve as an excuse for months of bloviating from Israeli and international pundits about the crisis in Israeli democracy.

That means we’re about to be subjected to nearly 100 more days of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics claiming that if he wins again, it will sound the death knell for Israeli democracy.

While there are cogent criticisms that can be directed at Israel’s method for electing governments, in addition to Netanyahu’s policies and conduct in office, like all the previous rounds of “death of democracy” predictions, the apocalyptic jeremiads that will be churned out along these lines will be utterly disingenuous. Those who make these arguments will sound high-minded and principled. But what they are really whining about are the democratic choices that Israelis have made—not the potential demise of liberty in the Jewish state. As they’ve done before, Netanyahu’s critics continue to confuse their disgust at the outcome of Israel’s democratic elections with the question of whether the country remains a democracy.

The theme of Israeli democracy in crisis was proclaimed early and often in the months and weeks leading up to April. Those making that argument went on about the law that reaffirmed that Israel is a Jewish state, the tribalism of Israeli politics, the failure to make peace or the threat to the rule of law from corruption allegations against the prime minister.

But as they had done the previous three times they went to the polls, Israel’s voters rejected these arguments. A clear majority voted for right-wing and religious parties pledged to support Netanyahu. They did so not because they are stupid or don’t care about democracy. They voted for another Netanyahu-led government because they generally support the prime minister’s policies and didn’t want him replaced with one of the chorus line of ex-generals leading the new Blue and White Party, which formed the main opposition.

Instead of yet another Netanyahu government, they got the chaos of the last week and what amounts to an attempt at a “do over” in September, even though there’s a good chance that the outcome won’t differ much from the April results.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for this mess.

Avigdor Lieberman’s refusal to join Netanyahu had little to do with a dispute about the drafting of ultra-Orthodox yeshivah students and everything to do with his conviction that this was the moment when the prime minister could be toppled, allowing the Yisrael Beiteinu leader to play the kingmaker. Netanyahu’s desperate search for another coalition partner and/or a defector from the opposition was a similarly undignified display.

The prime minister’s problem was the corruption charges hanging over his head, coupled with his desire for the new Knesset to pass an immunity law to shield him from his legal woes. The desire for such a law is not, in and of itself, illegitimate. Parliamentary immunity is a feature of many, if not, most democracies. But even if you agree with Netanyahu—and arguably, the majority of Israelis who voted for parties pledged to govern with him—that the charges are a thinly disguised politically motivated attack rather than evidence of real corruption, passing an immunity law now purely for the purpose of keeping him in office is unseemly.

Yet even if such a law were passed, Israel would remain a democracy.

Most of those crying for Netanyahu’s head to be mounted on a spike have never been terribly worked up about far more serious corruption when it concerned politicians they liked. Moreover, the flimsy nature of most of the charges against the prime minister—amounting to an attempt to criminalize interactions with the media or the acceptance of gifts of cigars and champagne—are not significant enough to justify the eagerness of the legal establishment to overturn the verdict of the electorate.

Nothing the Netanyahu government has done or is likely to do will in any way invalidate the ability of the opposition or the free press to criticize him or stop the voters to throw him out of office at the next election.

The real problem with Israeli democracy is the system by which the Knesset and government is elected, not Netanyahu. The proportional scheme of electing the Knesset has been a mess since the state was founded. It has empowered minorities, especially religious parties, out of proportion to their numbers. And it gives small parties and their cynical leaders like Lieberman regular opportunities to hold the government hostage, as he has just done.

Israel has always needed a constitution with separations of powers between the branches, including the out-of-control Supreme Court that considers itself superior to the elected legislature, and which would provide a more rational system for electing a parliament. Term limits for prime ministers who go on forever like the current incumbent wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

But given current realities, the kind of systemic change the country needs isn’t going to happen. Instead, it will continue to muddle along with a flawed system and sometimes equally flawed leaders. Occasionally, that will produce debacles like the election redux.

Whether or not Netanyahu governs for another few months or another few years, Israel will remain a vibrant and successful democracy. The answer for those who can’t stand his continued stay in office is not to eliminate him with a judicial coup or to smear his supporters as dolts or fascists. The only legitimate strategy for his foes is to defeat him at the polls if they can. But until that day arrives, their complaints about the doom of Israeli democracy should be ignored as nothing but cheap partisan invective.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin. 

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