Would you qualify Israel as an “illiberal democracy,” i.e., as a country that has functional democratic institutions but where public opinion is shifting toward illiberal values?
Israel is a hybrid democracy, one that combines elements of liberalism and of illiberalism. I will call it “semi-liberal.” From the beginnings, the founding fathers established a democracy quite remote from the liberal model. The Declaration of Independence, which promised equality for all, was betrayed. Around 20 percent of the population does not enjoy political rights equal to those of the Jewish majority. All the key positions of state are held by Jews. Certainly, the liberties of citizens are preserved, but not all are equal in terms of rights, or the Jews are more equal than the Arabs.
Israel’s distance from the liberal model is clear with regard to the status of clergymen. The ultra-orthodox, a small intolerant fraction, have been granted the power to impose the supremacy of the Halakha (Jewish law) in a number of domains of everyday life. This situation is utterly foreign to liberal democracies. Israel is thus the only state among Western democracies that does not allow civil marriages and divorces. The state claims to be “Jewish and democratic,” two terms that, despite what is said, are difficult to reconcile. This cocktail is a source of permanent tension.
In contrast with countries like France, Great Britain, or the United States, the system of checks and balances in Israel is rudimentary. The democratic culture is not well entrenched. Israel is still the only democracy in the world that, for more than half a century, has submitted another people to its domination. That is, it exercises supreme control over more than two and a half million Palestinians in the West Bank—without counting the one million eight hundred thousand from the Gaza Strip under blockade—depriving them not only of their political rights, but also of their individual freedoms and of any prospect of a future. And the Supreme Court has not done much to defend the rights of the weakest. It has not stood in the way of the occupation or of colonization. Whereas all the major colonial powers have seen their empires come undone, Israel has been busy working against the tide of history to build one.
Since 2009, we have seen a clearly illiberal drift develop. For the first time in the history of Israel, the government has overtly lashed out at countervailing power and systematically accuses its opponents of “betrayal.” The coalition of right-wing and extreme-right-wing parties is attempting to challenge the democratic advances of the years leading up to 2009. Without attacking the principle of free and fair elections, this coalition strives to silence the voices that oppose its policies or denounce its human rights violations in the occupied territories. There has been an increase in ad-hoc laws that affirm the pre-eminence of the Jewish character of the state to the detriment of its democratic dimension. The Supreme Court itself is in the hot seat, asked to yield to the power of the “people’s elected representatives.” And there is a tendency to expunge the principles of restraint and moderation.
Despite these weaknesses, Israeli democracy can be credited with having several positive elements. At war for more than 70 years, it has not veered toward an authoritarian regime, nor has it systematically implemented exceptional measures. It has preserved broad sections of freedoms for its citizens. A gay pride procession takes place not only in Tel-Aviv but also in the religious city par excellence, Jerusalem. A considerably larger number of establishments are open on the Shabbat than before. The government’s legal advisor and the police have been granted sufficient power to enable them to jeopardize the political survival of a prime minister. Several government members, a prime minister, some rabbis, and a former state president have, moreover, been sent to prison for corruption or sexual abuse. The army has always scrupulously adhered to the principle of its subordination to democratically elected civilian power, even in instances of deep disagreement. The Supreme Court, despite its weaknesses in the occupied territories, has more than once protected the rights of the most underprivileged in Israel and the equality of all before the law, and it acts as a bulwark against the abuses of the ultra-orthodox. The big commissions of national inquiry have caused governments to falter on several occasions.
But we must be aware that Israel is at the same time a fragile democracy and can easily slide toward a form of majority despotism. The nationalist and religious right wing waits for the least occasion to introduce legislation to make it possible to get around Supreme Court decisions that invalidate common laws.
Can you tell us more about what Israel shares with other illiberal or populist governments?
It shares many points in common with the Hungary of Viktor Orbán and the United States of Donald Trump. Like in both these countries, democratic checks and balances and corps intermédiaires in Israel are attacked in the name of the “people’s will.” Human rights NGOs have come under repeated attacks, comparable to Viktor Orbán’s assailing of such organizations in Hungary. In February 2018, Netanyahu accused the American Jewish billionaire George Soros, Hungarian by birth, of financing NGOs that engage in “libel against the state,” and Netanyahu also condemned Soros’s campaign against the plan to deport irregular African migrants, an approach similar to Orbán’s lashing out at Soros due to his pro-immigration stance. As in the United States, the right-wing Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, has appointed “conservative” judges to the Supreme Court, an act that Trump would not forswear. Like Donald Trump, Benyamin Netanyahu constantly seeks to divide Israeli society to rule it but will call for “national unity” whenever it suits him to do so. It is hard to say whether it is Trump who is copying Netanyahu or vice versa.
In contrast with Viktor Orbán, however, the leaders of the Israeli right do not define their country as an “illiberal” democracy. They claim to be the “only democracy in the middle East,” comparable in every respect to the most advanced democracies. They believe that their laws are perfectly democratic since they are voted on by the people’s representatives, thus ignoring, or feigning ignorance to, the duality that characterizes liberal democracies, which found their legitimacy on the rule of the majority and on the respect of minority rights.
Netanyahu’s Israel is not, as his detractors sometimes claim, comparable to the Turkey of Erdoğan, who maintains a brutal stranglehold over the country’s institutions and has put hundreds of opponents behind bars. The anti-democratic push of the right wing in Israel is “softer,” more insidious. Opponents are not imprisoned, but they are put under pressure. Attempts are made to discredit them, to marginalize them, to designate them as traitors. The Supreme Court is not being abolished but simply rendered harmless. The press is certainly free, but there are more and more calls coming from the right to gag journalists.
Which groups in Israeli society harbor these illiberal or national-populist sentiments?
Two groups stand opposed to political liberalism, and even to democracy itself. For the ultra-orthodox, democracy, human rights, equality, and political pluralism are contrary to their values. Due to their exploding population, they will in time become one of the country’s main electoral forces, able to impose their demands with ease. The other major current is that of the religious Zionists. Well integrated into Israeli society, this group has adopted a highly ambiguous attitude toward democracy which, in its eyes, should not stand in the way of the historical rights of the Jewish people. For them, the state of Israel has to be Jewish before being democratic. They abhor liberal democracy and are obsessed by the powers of the Supreme Court. They fight for the continuation of colonization and openly state their opposition to any political compromise with the Palestinians. Opinion polls show that there is a direct relation between a high degree of religiosity and a negative attitude toward liberal democracy. But Likud has also worked at weakening democracy.
Indeed, Likud has led several attacks on democratic institutions and especially on the justice system in recent years. How do you explain these moves and the role of Benjamin Netanyahu in them?
Likud has shifted to the right at the same time as the left has been weakened. It has been the spearhead of the anti-liberal offensive of the years 2009–2020. Moderate right-wing deputies like Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Reuven Rivlin were removed from positions of power within the party. Netanyahu has surrounded himself with loyal members who are absolutely devoted to him, sharing the same anti-liberal culture. He has played a driving role in the anti-liberal shift, and he even indulges in one-upmanship when stirring up nationalist sentiments, trying to outflank the far-right parties and seduce the settlers. With his legal battles, he has engaged in an unconcealed offensive against the judicial system, aiming to discredit the magistrates who charged him with fraud, corruption, and embezzlement.
How do these shifts connect with the “ethnic democracy” aspect of Israel, the Palestinian question, and the second-class status accorded to Israeli Arabs?
The drift away from democracy, observable since 2009, is closely linked to the conflict with the Palestinians of Israel and the occupied territories. It hardly has anything to do with economic and social questions. The nationalist and religious right wishes to reaffirm that the historical rights of the Jewish people be reasserted over the entire space extending from the Mediterranean Sea to Jordan, to the detriment of not only the Palestinians but also the Arabs in Israel. In their eyes, the land belongs to the Jewish people alone, and self-determination is possible for them only. The Palestinian refugees who are part of the land and the Arabs who have stayed there do not have any national rights.
Jewish opponents to this grand design must be fought, ostracized, and singled out for public opprobrium. The left must be subject to public scorn because it has betrayed the “Zionist ideal” through its liberal ideas, cosmopolitanism, and universalism. And the written and unwritten norms of liberal democracy—separation of powers, respect for the rule of law, for minority rights, and a culture of tolerance—must be subordinated to the Jewish people’s own interests, as the right understands them. The strength of this nationalist and religious bloc is that it can reckon with a fearful public opinion, very anti-Arab, which is easy to reassure by flattering its patriotism and its Jewish pride. There can hardly be a better strategy than to play on the resources of identity and anti-Arab resentment and to extol the rights of the Jewish people.
Samy Cohen is Research Professor Emeritus at Sciences Po, Paris. He is author and / or editor of more than twelve books and collaborative volumes. In addition to his work on foreign policy and defense and to his interest in interviewing elites methodology, his research focused on the role of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and of the French militaries, on the relations between States and non-State actors, on democracies at the war against terrorism, on Tsahal’s war against terrorism and on the Israeli Peace movement. He currently works on the Israeli democracy. The English translation of his latest book on the peace camp in Israel has been released in English in 2019, Doves Among Hawks. Struggles of the Israeli Peace Movements.