The Crisis of Israeli Democracy?

This is a guest post by TNC.

There is a fairly constant drumbeat from the far left in Israel and the Diaspora claiming the country is becoming less democratic due toinvestigations and proposed restrictions on NGOs, changes to libel laws, and the increasing influence of the religious. Emblematic in this regard is the Israeli blog +972. Yet even liberal, pro-Israel sources like TNR are joining the chorus. Here is Leon Wieseltier:

Like all liberal societies, Israeli society contains anti-liberal elements, and these anti-liberal elements, both religious and secular, have become increasingly prominent, and increasingly wanton, and increasingly sickening, recently. This anti-liberalism cannot be conspiratorially imputed to foreigners or enemies: Jews are doing this to Jews. The odious misogyny of the ultra-Orthodox is certainly not typical of Israeli life, from which the ultra-Orthodox have anyway seceded (except to exploit the welfare system, which magically makes practical men out of zealots); but more needs to be said. There has occurred a renascence of Jewish fanaticism in the Netanyahu years.

However, fellow TNR writer and historian Gil Troy has this to say:

Statistical projections warning of haredi hordes overwhelming “normal” Israel stoke the media hysteria. But statistical trends are not historical facts. In researching his 2003 book Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, Professor Efron traced these Chicken Little statistical warnings to the 1960s. “It has become a staple media trope,” Efron says, “with some predicting the tipping point in 10 years time, others seven, sometimes 15. It should have happened in 1970, then again, and again, but never did.” And while demographers insist that now the threat is real, the steady, underpublicized exit from the community may provide the counter that the million-person Russian immigration provided a decade ago. This attrition accounts for the mirror-image standoff. Haredi and non-haredi Israelis both feel embattled, threatened by the other, and abused by the other’s advantages.

There is no denying the political class—both right and left wing—is incredibly corrupt and unpopular as are the establishment parties. The country is in cyclical if not perpetual gridlock and Israelis have about as much faith in their politicians as Americans, which is to say not very much.

Unfortunately one of the primary impediments to pragmatic political action seems unlikely to be challenged anytime soon and is not due to the reasons most commonly trotted out such as demographics or the rise of conservative theocratic elements. To put it most simply, Israel is toodemocratic.

The Israeli system of proportional representation—where parties that get x% of the vote get x% members of the Knesset—allows incredibly small political parties to have a great deal of influence. These small parties often play a kingmaker role as the larger parties need their support to form a government. Being junior partners, they can always pull out if the larger party fails to deliver the goods. As political scientist Daniel J. Elazar notes:

Any group that wins a touch more than a bare 1 percent of the popular vote in a Knesset election gains a seat in the Knesset and, under present conditions, a chance to enter the governing coalition and indeed the government itself under advantageous conditions. The end result of all this, however, is to frustrate both necessary dimensions of good government. The government that results must rest upon so delicately balanced a coalition that it cannot muster the energy necessary to govern effectively, while the electoral system is so party-based that the people feel unrepresented most of the time.

In addition to giving small parties too much influence this sort of ultra-democratic system fosters a situation ripe for the proliferation of parties. This is precisely what has happened since independence. Today there are representatives of fourteen parties seated in the Knesset. The crisis is not rooted in an absence of democracy but in an abundance of democracy, including the potential for a tyranny of a majority. This, the critics say, is what is happening in Israel today. But the potential has existed and has manifested itself since independence. Why has it become such a pressing issue as of late for these critics? Is it because the left long dominated the institutions of power and as long as the right was being muzzled and prevented from running in elections these things didn’t matter?

Leaving those questions aside, something modest like the five percent election threshold in Germany (where a party running for office must receive at least five percent of the vote to have any representation) would decrease the influence of very small parties. Even a two percent threshold would cut down on the number of parties represented in the Knesset. The only problem is many Israelis seem dead set against this. To move away from their form of ultra-democratic politics is almost anti-Israeli. But these same people are often voices for a more pragmatic, centrist, politics. They do not see a contradiction between the two.


Bella Center said…
Fascinating, isn't it, that while Israel proposes restrictions on foreign funding of NGOs, Egypt raids NGO offices and puts them on trial.
TNC said…
Thanks, Bob.
SnoopyTheGoon said…
"Even a two percent threshold would cut down on the number of parties represented in the Knesset."

Just a technicality, Bob - the current threshold is 2%. Doesn't help much, though...
TNC said…
Thanks for the correction, Snoop. What about a 5% requirement?
Imagine, please, the national positions reversed and the current U.S. GOP reaching for power in a small, beleaguered Middle Eastern nation. For many U.S. critics, it would be the second coming of Franco.
Roland Dodds said…
Another great guest post from TNC.

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