How democracy slips away
The long-awaited report of the comptroller-general on the conduct of Israel’s most protracted war since its battle for independence will be published tomorrow. All the indications point to multiple military and political errors in the management of the 2014 Gaza war. The highest echelons of the government and the IDF have already sharpened their swords. Some have prepared a detailed defense against the penetrating criticism they are about to receive; others are anxious to reap as much personal and public gain as possible from the findings of the inquiry. A battle royal is about to erupt — one which in today’s tumultuous environment will undoubtedly further upset what is a very tenuous political balance.
This highly-charged and personally vituperative debate is likely to obscure the much more serious issues they arouse about the necessity and the results of the “Protective Edge” campaign, about Israel’s now chronic inability to effectively handle its military engagements, and, tellingly, also about the advisability of such military incursions over diplomatic actions in the future. The public discussion will also invite reactions from bereaved families on both sides of the conflict, from civil society organizations and, unquestionably, from international actors.
As Israelis become embroiled in this latest imbroglio, it is vital that they not lose sight of its consequences for the country’s already diminishing democratic viability. Israel is in the midst of a deep democratic recession, having divested itself in recent years of many of its liberal trappings. In a situation in which populism and its corollaries — mounting illiberalism; the systematic use of majority power to attack elites in the courts, the media, academe and the arts; the progressive assault on minority groups and opinions; and the purposeful removal of institutional roadblocks to centralized rule — another large chunk of Israel’s democratic armor may be removed in the process.
Several indicators of democratic slippage have become accurate predictors of what is now a virtually global pattern of democratic regression. In many instances, Israel evinced dropping scores on these measures several years before the established democracies of Europe and North America currently evincing similar populist features. The first indicator relates to voice (representation) and accountability (freedom of expression, association and press). According to the Israel Democracy Index 2016 (all further figures presented here are based on this publication unless otherwise indicated) Israel ranks in the 70th percentile on this scale, placing it in the second quartile globally — well below the established democracies and just above Greece and Hungary. Indeed, it has experienced a reduction in its relative position on a complex set of civil liberties, dropping it to the third quartile globally and putting it in the 47th percentile, alongside such countries as Venezuela and Lebanon.
These findings are a prelude to a second indicator of democratic deconsolidation: disenchantment with democracy. In theory, a vast majority of Israelis believe that the democratic character of the country is vital to its capacity to meet ongoing challenges (close to 85 percent). This general support is lowest among the ultra-Orthodox (62%) and National Religious (25%), pointing to a worrisome trend down the line.
On closer scrutiny, however, in practice many Israelis are willing to forego democratic principles. Thus, for example, more than 44% of Jews believe that it is acceptable to allocate preferential funding to Jewish localities over Arab ones (55% of Jews still disagree). In the same vein, almost an equal percentage believes that non-democratic countries (33.9%) and democratic countries (36.2%) can fight terror effectively and that it is permissible to ignore ethical considerations to combat terrorism (59.3% agree; 39.7% disagree). Tellingly, a substantial majority (64.1%) are convinced that key human rights organizations cause damage to the state (31.3% disagree). Democracy, it seems, is only as good as it ability to protect Israel’s Jewish majority and its immediate interests.
A third early predictor of democratic backsliding focuses on the penchant for “strong leaders.” 42% of the representative sample of the 2016 Democracy Index agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement that in order “…to meet Israel’s unique problems, we need a strong leader who is not swayed by the Knesset, the media or the public” (in 2014, the figure was 31.8%). Although 55.6 % mildly or strongly disagreed, this was over 10% less than just two years ago. A penchant for strong — even authoritarian — leadership is an acknowledged sign of a shift to populism in seemingly democratic settings.
Indeed, the fourth indicator of democratic resilience revolves around attitudes to democratic performance. Here the situation in Israel is especially problematic. Overall, Israeli citizens express high levels of dissatisfaction with the functioning of government. Negative scores are recorded on every single measure except security, where 70.2% give quite good or very good ratings to the present coalition — something that might change come tomorrow with the publication of the findings on the handling of “Operation Preventive Edge.” On every other measure, approval rates are below 32%: public order (31.9%), economics (28.8%), political/diplomatic accomplishments (19.2%) and social policy (16.9%). Israelis are thus seriously unhappy with domestic achievements. Should the government’s edge on security matters also be severely undermined, not only will its specific support base dwindle, but this contraction could adversely affect the standing of the country’s democratic institutions.
The fifth indicator of democratic fragility relates precisely to the issue of democratic trust. For quite some time, support of Israelis for key state institutions has dwindled. This downturn continued apace during the past year. The IDF continues to rank highest in popular support, earning the trust of 90% of the population. In second place stands the president of the state, with 68%, followed by the Supreme Court (56%) and then the police. The country’s political institutions — along with the media — are at the bottom of the totem pole: the government (28.5% approval), the Knesset (28%), the media (26%) and the political parties (14%). To add insult to injury, most Israelis have little faith in their elected officials: 64.5% feel that Knesset members are lazy, over 75% think that they are detached from their public’s needs and 79% believe that they put their personal interests over those of their constituencies. These are very troubling findings, especially since the rate of decline in trust in these key authorities and their incumbents seems to be accelerating.
Inevitably, therefore, Israel’s ranking on political security and absence of violence scales is one of the lowest in the world. The World Bank’s comprehensive World Governance Indicators ranks Israel in the 13th percentile, near the bottom of the 209 countries it surveyed, with a decline of 3% percent in comparison to last year. The prospects for the durability of the system are less than heartening.
The poor showing on these early warning indicators explains the recent tendency to deepen illiberal policies, to clamp down on the press, to muzzle ethnic and ideological critics, to lash out against dissenters in civil society, and to further defray criticism both externally and internally. In what has become a palpable downward spiral, disaffection has bred a shift to republicanism and ethnocentric populism, which in turn has created even further disengagement from the formal arena.
The dissemination of the comptroller’s report is going to exacerbate what are already retrogressive democratic trends. It will further upset the political arena by unleashing an unsavory period of political back-biting and personal recrimination, threatening an already shaky coalition. The IDF itself will become an object of increased controversy. And the office of the comptroller-general — one of the last institutional checks and balances remaining — will probably be undercut in the process. But the main victim, unless counterbalanced by Israel’s still largely democratic citizenry, will be Israel’s democratic core.
It is still possible to avert further decline into populist bigotry and external brinkmanship by reversing the pendulum. This, however, depends on the willingness and capacity of the majority of Israelis — fed up with expanding chaos in their midst — to come together to channel both their despair and their anger into carrying out a comprehensive democratic reform. The alternative is unthinkable.