The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy


Why People Think Israel is a Democracy

Filed under: Democratic MethodsElectorate/Demographics — eidelberg @ 4:56 am

Edited transcript of the Eidelberg Report, Israel National Radio, July 7, 2008.

For most people, the mere fact that Israel has periodic, multiparty elections convinces them that Israel is a democracy. This is naive. Democratic elections do not necessarily render the government of a country accountable to the governed, and without accountability, there is no genuine democracy. Nevertheless, although accountability is lacking in Israeli government, Israeli society is pretty democratic.

A better guide to understanding “democracy in Israel” is Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic, Democracy in America. For Tocqueville, the decisive principle of America is not democratic elections or even the structure of government, but equality of conditions. Equality of conditions means that no citizen is bound by law to the station of his birth. Equality of conditions enables any citizen to rise on the socio-economic ladder. A person of humble origin may become a country’s leader. Hence, nepotism aside, there are no hereditary privileges or privileged class.

However, while a country may be democratic from a sociological perspective, it may be very undemocratic from a political perspective, as I have already indicated. Thus, despite democratic elections, members of the Knesset and those who become cabinet ministers are not individually elected by and accountable to the voters in constituency elections. They can ignore public opinion with impunity—and do so even on matters involving the borders of the country. Recall how Likud Prime Minister Sharon adopted Labor’s policy of “unilateral disengagement,” a policy rejected by an overwhelming majority of the voters in the January 2003 election.

Now add Israel’s Supreme Court. Here is a self-perpetuating oligarchy whose rulings often violate the abiding beliefs and values of a large majority of Israel’s population.

The conclusion is obvious: Israel’s structure of governance oscillates between prime ministerial and judicial despotism. This is why the title of one of my books is The Myth of Israeli Democracy.

Now let’s approach the subject from a somewhat different perspective, which appears in a second edition of my just-mentioned book. There I discuss two types of democracy. Both have, as their basic principles, freedom and equality. In one type, freedom and equality lack ethical and rational constraints. I call this “normless” democracy—the kind that characterizes post-Christian Europe, which is dominated today by moral relativism, a doctrine that denies objective standards of “good” and “bad,” “right” and wrong.”

The second type of democracy I call “normative” democracy—a type whose principles can be seen in the American Declaration of Independence. This document implicitly derives freedom and equality from ethical monotheism and thus places rational limitations on freedom and equality.

Unsurprisingly, the word “democracy” is constantly on the lips of Israel’s politicians, judges, rabbis, academics, journalists, the literati, and ordinary citizens. All boast of Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and so people think throughout the world. Israel’s reputation as a democracy is precisely what endows its Government with legitimacy and its ruling elites with respectability, especially in America, where Israel’s reputation as a democracy counts most.

Of course, Israel is politically democratic compared to its autocratic Arab neighbors, but this tells us nothing about democracy in Israel.

What confuses the issue is this. The mentality of a society may be democratic insofar as it exalts freedom and equality. Yet, despite universal suffrage and periodic multiparty elections, the structure of government can actually disempower the people. This can happen where those who wield the Legislative and Executive powers of government can ignore public opinion, at least between elections. On the other hand, if we ignore the paramount issue of Who Rules? and focus only on Israeli society, there is a sense in which Israel is a democracy.

Israel is a crazy-quilt society of immigrants from a hundred different countries. Both secularists and religionists in Israel are fragmented. Fragmentation is magnified by a law having no equivalent among the 88 other countries classified as democracies by Freedom House (a research organization in the United States). The law makes the entire country a single electoral district in which parties, with closed lists, compete for parliamentary seats via Proportional Representation.

Let me review how citizens vote in Israel. After being duly identified, he (or she) enters a voting booth. There he sees about thirty stacks of small slips of paper, the number of stacks depending on the number of parties authorized to run in the election. The slips or ballots are about three inches square. Printed on the slips are two or three Hebrew letters representing a particular party. The names of the party’s candidates—they are ranked in order—do not appear on the ballot. Large parties may have a list of as many as 120 candidates; of course, the number is much smaller for minor parties. Apart from a party’s leader and a few high-ranking candidates, most of the candidates of the party with which a voter identifies are unknown to him. He will know far fewer candidates of the other parties competing in the election.

The voter selects a single slip, places it in an envelop, leaves the booth and drops the envelop in a box. That’s democracy Israeli style. But I have omitted a most important fact.

A low electoral threshold—presently 2%—multiplies the number of parties such that none has ever come close to winning a parliamentary majority. Hence, the Government, i.e., the Cabinet, invariably consists of a multiplicity of rival parties, each having its own agenda. The people never know beforehand the combination of parties that may form the Government.

With a Government consisting of several rival parties, Israel may be said to have a plural Executive. Lacking a unitary Executive, the people of Israel, steeped in diversity, have no clear sense of national purpose. Sociological pluralism, appropriate in the Legislature, is carried over into the Executive branch, leaving the country in a state of disarray, but giving Israel the aura of democracy.

This means that Israel, from a sociological perspective, approximates a normless democracy. However, if we examine the relationship between the Government and the governed via Israel’s electoral laws and institutions, lo and behold Israel is not a democracy! Analysis of these laws and institutions reveals that Israel does not have a government of the people, for the people, and by the people—meaning, it does not have a governmental structure that ensures popular sovereignty, the definition of democracy. What we see in Israel is a polymorphous society run by a profusion of party elites virtually indifferent to public opinion between elections.

Thus, despite universal suffrage, the people have been effectively disenfranchised! Israel is a regime of parties, secular, religious, Jewish and Arab. In fact, given the permissive rulings of Israel’s Supreme Court, it makes no difference whether the parties in the Knesset support or oppose Israel’s existence as a Jewish state! This is the quintessence of normless democracy, where not even the laws of treason are enforced. In normless democracy, neither truth nor reason nor reverence nor deference has the power to unite citizens.

Because normless democracy is mired in moral relativism, Israel today is devoid of national pride, national identity, and national leadership.

So Israel’s reputation as a democracy is a myth. Its ruling elites have deliberately fostered this myth to perpetuate their own power on the one hand, and to prevent Israel from becoming a genuine Jewish commonwealth on the other.

It should be understood, however, that my book, The Myth of Israeli Democracy, has a subtitle: “Toward a Truly Jewish Israel.” My ultimate purpose is to develop a Philosophy of Jewish Democracy, the basic principles of which are formulated in various books of mine. It seems that no party in Israel has the wherewithal to address this issue. Intellectual stagnation prevails. The people are sick of parties, which, if not steeped in corruption or self-aggrandizement, are led by visionless and valueless individuals who dither about “vision” and “values.”

Party leaders keep talking about the lack of vision. Perhaps they should consult a doctor or a trainer of seeing-eye dogs!

In any event, I intend to develop a new conception of political parties, where party leaders will have to possess various professional skills corresponding to the various concerns of government or the major public sectors of Israeli society.