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Assaf Shapira
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Israel’s troubling but not catastrophic democracy score

The new ranking by a top global watchdog reflects the impact of the judicial overhaul -- as well as the opposition to it
Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and all 14 other judges hear petitions against the 'reasonableness law' at the court in Jerusalem on September 12, 2023. (DEBBIE HILL / POOL / AFP)
Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and all 14 other judges hear petitions against the 'reasonableness law' at the court in Jerusalem on September 12, 2023. (DEBBIE HILL / POOL / AFP)

Every year, the V-Dem organization publishes an annual report, considered one of the important and reliable tools for assessing the level of democracy in the world. The latest report, which addresses Israel in the year 2023, has downgraded Israel from the status of a “liberal democracy” to that of an “electoral democracy” for the first time in over fifty years. In other words, Israel is perceived as a country that maintains democratic, free, and competitive elections – but not necessarily based on principles such as checks and balances, limitation of power, and protection of human and civil rights.

The change in Israel’s category is concerning, but on its own, does not necessarily indicate a clear democratic decline. It’s a decrease from a score of 0.66 to 0.63, which is significant but not extreme, essentially a drop from the category of “liberal democracy-minus” to “electoral democracy-plus.”

The organization itself notes that the criteria for being considered a liberal democracy are exceptionally high, which is why there are other countries generally regarded as democratic but defined by V-Dem only as electoral democracies, including Austria, Portugal, and Greece. Furthermore, Israel is not included in the list of countries that the organization identifies as having undergone a significant democratic decline in the last decade – unlike countries such as Poland, Greece, Hungary, Mexico, and India.

And yet, we must not downplay the significance of this move.

First, from a historical perspective, it signifies a more substantial decline in the liberal democracy index, from a peak of 0.7 in the second half of the 1990s (and most recently in 2000) to 0.63 in 2023.

Second, it is critical to pay close attention to the factors that led to Israel’s score decline. The organization highlights three characteristics of a liberal democracy that have been affected in Israel: damage to the rule of law, deterioration in the protection against torture, and the government’s attack on the justice system. As noted in the report, “this is primarily due to substantial declines in…the transparency and predictability of the law, and government attacks on the judiciary. Among other things, Israel’s Knesset passed a bill in 2023 stripping the Supreme Court of the power to invalidate laws, thus undermining checks on executive power. Indicators that are in substantive decline also include freedom from torture.”

The report’s specific mention of the revocation of the Reasonableness Standard, which affected the court’s ability to review government decisions and the system of checks and balances at large, is not surprising. Many researchers and organizations anticipated that the government’s legislative initiatives in the judicial system would lead to a democratic decline and that this would be reflected in international metrics.

Third, this report should be looked at in a broader context, in which Israel also experienced a decline in other international measures. An example is the “Freedom in the World” index, published by Freedom House. In the 2023 edition, Israel dropped by three points, from 77 to 74 (although still categorized as “free”). While part of the decline is related to the war with Hamas, it also stems from encroachments on the independence of the judiciary within the framework of the judicial overhaul. Again, this is not a one-time decline but an ongoing process, with Israel dropping from 80 to 74 in a span of a few years. The situation in other international indices is largely similar.

And yet, there is reason for optimism: it’s possible to hope for improvement next year. The V-Dem and Freedom House indices refer to the year 2023 and thus do not account for the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the government’s cancellation of the Reasonableness Standard. It’s a fair bet that, at least in this regard, Israel’s situation will improve next year. Further optimism can be drawn from the fact that our situation could have been much worse if additional legislative initiatives, especially in the judicial system, had been implemented, such as the change in the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee. In this sense, the unprecedented outcry against such initiatives, along with the protest movement that took to the streets, demonstrated the resilience of Israeli democracy. It is imperative for all those who care about Israeli democracy to continue standing guard against various attempts that are being promoted even today.

About the Author
Dr. Assaf Shapira is the director of the Political Reform Program at the Israel Democracy Institute.