Israel’s election exposes questions it’s facing on democracy

Issues of democracy are front and centre of the current election campaign. As former Deputy Knesset Speaker Professor Naomi Chazan has written: “The ballot is shaping up into a referendum on the future of democracy in Israel.”

Sitting in London and watching the robust and passionate debate that is taking place on the streets, online and in the airwaves of Israel, it may sound counter-intuitive to make this claim.

But recent months have brought a number of developments with the potential to change the course and quality of democracy in Israel.

One of the immediate triggers for the calling of the election was the disputed ‘Nation-State Bill’, a set of proposals to re-balance the idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland and a democratic state with equal rights for all its citizens.

During the period running up to the election, there have been debates about press freedom with separate attempts to limit Israel’s two largest mass circulation daily newspapers – Yediot Ahronot and Israel Hayom.

There has also been electoral reform, with a rise in the electoral threshold that a party must reach to gain seats in the Knesset.

Many commentators contest that a partial motivation for raising the threshold – which was done without a wider programme of electoral reforms – was to make it more difficult for the parties representing Israeli Arabs to achieve seats.

Since the election campaign began, a number of issues relating to the substance of Israeli democracy have taken place. When I was in Israel last week, the High Court of Justice overturned the decision of the Central Elections Commission to ban Israeli Arab MK Haneen Zoabi and hard-right activist Baruch Marzel from running in this election.

Both politicians are often described as being on the extremes of Israeli politics (Zoabi was suspended from the Knesset following her comments during Operation Protective Edge, and Marzel is a former associate of Meir Kahane).

Their banning and re-instatement offers a fascinating insight into the questions of the boundaries of freedom of speech and who can set the limits.

There has also been much focus on issues of transparency and checks and balances.

Look at the expose of the ‘secretive’ allocation of state funding to settlements through the World Zionist Organisation’s settlement, and the criticism of V15 and other Get Out the Vote Campaigns.

The campaign discourse has hardened with the language adopted.

To give an example, one party’s campaign seems to be suggesting that if you are not with us, you are with the terrorists.

I was privileged to attend the Democracy Conference organised by Ha’aretz. It hit the news beforehand after right-wing politicians decided to withdraw from it.

Some of those cited my organisation’s sponsorship of it as the reason – despite knowing of the sponsorship when they signed up and, in some cases, having spoken at the 2014 conference, which we also sponsored.

What was significant was that the decision to boycott the conference was criticised not just by those on the political left but many leading figures on the political right.

Behind much of it was a sense that refusing to engage not only demonises people who have different opinions to yours, but that it profoundly disrespects the Israeli democratic tradition of debate and discussion.

President Reuben Rivlin delivered the keynote session at the conference.

He refused to pull out, despite his many political differences with many participants, and in his address criticised those seeking to narrow democracy in Israel. He also made a strong defence of the democratic rights of all citizens.

Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni used her address to warn that ‘democracy [may] turn into a dirty word’.

The issues around Israel’s democracy won’t be resolved at these elections, whatever the results.

This campaign merely exposes the deeper questions Israeli society is facing on the quality, depth and limits of its democracy.

This is not an issue of whether or not Israel is democratic (of course it is!), but a question of how much emphasis needs to be given to strengthening the democratic discourse and educating towards it as part of the wider debates about Israel’s future direction.

What my trip to Israel underlined is that, beyond the headline seekers, there are many Israelis from across the political spectrum alive to these issues and who are now speaking out.

As supporters of Israel in the UK, we should be amplifying these voices.

It is not a simple matter of left versus right – as exemplified by President Rivlin – but rather a fundamental question of how Israel lives out the founding values of its Declaration of Independence.

About the Author
Adam Ognall is Chief Executive of the New Israel Fund.
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