When does a country cease to be democratic? What’s the tipping point? How can it be identified? Historians and political scientists have, for close to a century, pondered these questions. They did so in the aftermath of World War I, then again as over a hundred new states transitioned from colonialism only to see their fragile democracies succumb to one-party rule, and most recently since the end of the official Cold War, when many of the new wave democracies fell victim to authoritarianism in its many forms. These are not merely theoretical issues: they have immense significance today in many parts of the world. Israel is no exception.
Democratic government has always been the main bulwark against ultra-nationalism, ethnic domination, religious fanaticism and dictatorial rule. In the multicultural and boisterous Israeli political context — and its increasingly volatile geostrategic setting — its democratic foundations have provided a normative protection that enabled it to survive. In recent years, however, it has experienced a democratic recession which is fast slipping into de-democratization.
The events of the past few week are the harbinger of this shift: from encouraging a political discourse that denounces alternative views and supporting a series of activities that constrain individual and group liberties, the present government, with Binyamin Netanyahu at its helm, is now itself instituting a series of measures that will — should they succeed — transform Israel from a formally (if not a deeply) democratic country into one in which the tyranny of the majority reigns. This process is well under way, threatening to institutionalize an autocratic form of government (with strong ethnocratic and theocratic features) which, by definition, defies fundamental democratic precepts and flies in the face of its essential values.
The official assault on Israel’s democratic character, already brewing for some time, was launched last week, when the Prime Minister pressed the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee to initiate legislation which would allow it to suspend (if not actually expel) duly-elected members of parliament who stray from consensual boundaries. This palpably political move, prompted by the conduct of the three Balad party representatives in their meeting with the families of terrorists killed in attacks on Israelis in the last few months (already suspended by the Ethics Committee from participation in Knesset debates), crosses the line from behind-the-scenes backing for anti-democratic measures to direct involvement in these initiatives.
The proposed bill — yet to be presented to the members of the Committee charged with sponsoring it — will give 90 members of the 120-member Knesset the power to suspend a member who has violated Article 7(a) of the Basic Law: The Knesset. This paragraph — which states that any list or individual who advocates racism, disagrees with the definition of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state,” supports an armed struggle of an enemy or terror organization against the State of Israel or has visited such a country may be prohibited from running for parliamentary office — will now be expanded to include serving members as well.
Past attempts by the politically–constituted Central Elections Committee to disqualify parties (most notably Balad) from competing in national elections were overturned by the High Court of Justice. The Court has consistently argued that the right to be elected — along with the power to vote — is the most basic of democratic tenets. Constricting the ability of citizens to stand for office can only be implemented in the most extenuating circumstances. It follows that allowing even a preferential majority of the parliament to oust one of its own cannot pass muster, especially given the fact that previous incidents of infringement (as in the case of the avowedly racist Meir Kahane) never resulted in such an action.
This proposal, however apparently technical and tedious, makes a mockery of the democratic process. It not only gives the political majority at any given time the legal authority to punish (and hence effectively emasculate) the opposition, it also bypasses the legal system which, to date, has held the power to indict and convict elected officials. As such, it purposefully changes the rules of the game and distorts the principle of representation without which democratic life cannot be sustained.
Barely a day after the beginning of the preparation of what is now dubbed the “Suspension Law”, the Knesset plenum passed another government-sponsored anti-democratic bill: the so-called “Transparency Law”, which compels NGOs receiving more than fifty percent of their support from foreign political entities (all progressive human rights and civil liberties groups) to list these donors on every publication. Other groups (especially right-wing organizations funded by individuals and organizations abroad) will not be obliged to do the same. This direct assault on Israel’s progressive civil society, already much maligned by systematic campaigns charging its leaders and sympathizers with everything from serving as foreign moles to downright betrayal, further weakens one of the structural pillars of Israeli democracy.
Another democratic mainstay was further undermined at the same time: the independent media. One of the most experienced political broadcasters, Razi Barkai, who dared suggest that not only Israeli, but also Palestinian, mothers want to bury their dead, heard on the news that his two-hour daily program on Army radio had been cut in half. Members of the Foreign Press Association were summoned to a sub-committee of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset to explain “biased” coverage. As a result, the range of discourse in the public arena has been contained even more — buttressing shifts in the educational curriculum that have severely narrowed critical thought.
To make matters worse, this week opened with a dual assault on the institutional separation of powers. At its weekly meeting, the government decided to transfer the power to dismiss senior government officials from a semi-judicial panel (The Turkel Committee) established to vet political appointees to the more malleable Civil Service Commissioner. This step facilitates the politically-motivated dismissal of senior service appointees and paves the way for increased politicization of the bureaucracy. Later in the day, the Prime Minister defied all precedents by appearing personally before the High Court to defend the government’s handling of its natural gas policy.
The active participation of the Prime Minister and the coalition he heads in the whittling away of Israel’s democratic foundations goes beyond the natural desire of (insecure) democratic rulers to enhance their control over the reins of government. These moves cross the ambiguous — but very critical — line between exercising democratic power and undermining democratic rule.
Several features mark this process in Israel, as in other historical and comparative examples of de-democratization. The first is its consciously legal character: every step of democratic constriction is scrupulously entrenched in law, granting it an aura of respectability which flaunts its substance. The second is its socially exclusive nature: it is aimed at marginalizing certain communities — in Israel’s case first and foremost Arab citizens of Israel — but can easily be broadened to encompass other segments of the population who query government policy. The third is its centralizing propensities: it encourages the concentration of power in the hands of the leader and his close associates, thereby diminishing citizen access to decision-making and exposing the system to the whims of a select — and increasingly unaccountable — few. And finally, this process lends itself to the abuse of power: it upsets what’s left of the checks and balances of the democratic system and indirectly enhances corruption, laying the political arena hostage to those who control it at any given time.
There are many types of democracy in today’s world. Some democratic regimes are substantive democracies that put emphasize on individual freedoms and collective right; others are more formalistic, highlighting democratic procedures at the expense of its liberal underpinnings. But democracies can cease to exist entirely when they employ seemingly democratic means (such as majority rule) to deny civil liberties, impose the tyranny of the majority and exclude citizens from participation in the democratic process.
Israel within the Green Line is on the brink of crossing this elusive boundary (which has already been transgressed for years in the Palestinian territories). It is not too late to halt the anti-democratic legislative initiatives of the current government. Failure to do so would expedite the demise of the true source of Israel’s strength and its external and domestic sustainability: its democracy.