Reports of the death of Israeli democracy are greatly exaggerated

Countless pundits and analysts of varying motives and backgrounds have asserted that the end is near for Israeli democracy. For some, democracy seems to only be under threat when they don’t get their desired electoral outcome.

Sean Durns
Sean Durns
Sean Durns is a senior research analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

“History,” the writer Mark Twain allegedly observed, “doesn’t repeat. But it does rhyme.” Twain’s adage is worth bearing in mind when looking at press coverage of the new government in Israel.

After five elections in three years, a seemingly stable governing coalition has finally been formed with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu at its head. This marks Netanyahu’s third time as prime minister. The 73-year-old first entered the premiership in 1996. He has already surpassed David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and a founding father, as the longest serving premier in the Jewish state’s history.

In short: Netanyahu is a known quantity. And like countless prime ministers before him, he has made concessions to other political parties and leaders to form a ruling coalition. Such is the nature of parliamentary government, be it in Israel or elsewhere.

But many pundits are arguing that Israel is in peril. Take, for example, the Washington Post. In the span of one month, the newspaper’s global opinion section has run two columns by Gershom Gorenberg darkly warning that the new “Israeli government is dangerous.” Like others, Gorenberg highlights issues that he has with several members of some of the smaller parties included in the coalition. His concerns are shared by others, including Israelis and some who have good faith criticisms.

But the hyperbole is noteworthy. And it is hardly original.

Indeed, in 2011 Gorenberg wrote an entire book called The Unmaking of Israel, in which he argued that Israeli democracy is under threat. Of course, in the intervening twelve years there hasn’t been a shortage of elections or transfers of power. Indeed, there have been more elections in the 12 years since the book appeared than in the twelve years prior to its publication. One of the central claims of that book is the impending disenfranchisement of Israeli Arabs. Yet, subsequent years have seen political parties comprised largely of Israeli Arabs be decisive in electoral outcomes and key to forming coalitions.

Nor is Gorenberg alone in his predictions of doom and gloom. Countless pundits and analysts of varying motives and backgrounds have asserted that the end is near. For some, democracy seems to only be under threat when they don’t get their desired electoral outcome. In these instances, exaggerated claims about the impending death of Israeli democracy set a worrying precedent. ‘It’s only a democracy if my party/person wins’ is hardly a healthy outlook that is conducive to a free and democratic society.

There’s also a long history of such claims being made about Israel. More than four decades ago, several pundits also offered apocalyptic predictions about Israel’s future.

The year 1977 was, by any metric, a watershed year in Israeli political history. For the first time, a ruling coalition was formed by the right. Since its recreation in 1948, the Jewish state had been led by the Labor Party and governed by coalitions dominated by the left. For three decades Israel was—arguably—effectively under one-party rule—although even then noteworthy concessions were made to other political parties, including religious ones.

Yet, 1977 witnessed the rise of Likud leader Menachem Begin. Begin was the political heir of Ben Gurion’s chief political opponent in pre-state Israel, Vladimir Jabotinsky. Ben Gurion had unfairly branded Jabotinsky a “fascist”—even disgustingly comparing him to Adolf Hitler. Regrettably, such discourse is still evident today in some circles.

Begin’s election ushered in a new age. But many in the press were apoplectic.

The New York Times, for example, referred to the Likud as “ultraconservative” and Begin as “strident.” These descriptions weren’t meant to be complimentary. The newspaper’s May 22, 1977 report also warned that the new coalition would severely hamper the prospects for peace in the region. Begin, the New York Times warned, had “hardline” views which didn’t augur well for peace negotiations.

And, the Times added, “Arab figures agreed that the Likud victory would make a Middle East settlement more difficult to achieve.” A July 17, 1977 New York Times dispatch claimed: “Israel is sorely troubled.” Begin, the Times story implied, had a troubling background. He had “terrifying credibility” as one Israeli analyst told the newspaper. The Washington Post seemed to concur. A May 19, 1977 report asserted that in the Knesset Begin had “ruled with an iron fist.” After all, he had been “the leader of a violent Jewish terrorist group” during the era of British rule.

As for peace, the Times offered another prognostication:

“Some argue that Begin may be the right man at the right time for the difficult job of persuading the Israelis that major territorial concessions must be made, just as Richard Nixon was the man who made accommodation with Peking palatable. The problem with that line of thought is that the Nixon record is one of ideological shifts dependent upon changes in the political climate—pragmatism, for want of a nastier word. So far—and the record substantiates it over the years—Menahem Begin says what he means. And that, understandably enough, is disconcerting to those who sift through his utterances looking for nuances that could mean at least the readiness to contemplate something at least a little different from what he says.”

The conventional wisdom was wrong—and not for the first time, as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) has documented. Begin played a key role in the first major peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, popularly known as the Camp David Accords. And Begin proved willing to cede land in exchange for peace, as he did with a staged withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, which concluded in April 1982. And far from being a transitory leader, Begin held power for more than six years and brought a political realignment to Israel with ramifications that are still felt today. A key component of that realignment, and of Likud’s victory, were the Sephardim, many of whom felt alienated and neglected by the Labor Party.

By any measure and metric, Israel today is more diverse, wealthier, and more powerful than it was at the time of its founding. But this hasn’t stopped some, including former U.S. President Barack Obama, from idealizing the past and hailing a “golden age”—one led by the Labor Party—that, for many Israelis, never existed. But the past tells us that humility, and not hyperbole, is usually a safer bet.

Sean Durns is a Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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