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We’ve seen other democracies fade away too

Take a charismatic, populist leader, add a polarized society, and favor some special interest groups to see the rule of law fail and democracy decline
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party rally in Tel Aviv on November 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg / Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party rally in Tel Aviv on November 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg / Flash90)

Israel, in a state of political paralysis for the past year, is in a frenzy barely a week before it might find itself in the throes of a third set of elections. As is often the case, its citizens are convinced that their present quagmire has no parallel, offering a variety of (usually far-fetched) remedies to stabilize what is patently a numbing stalemate. What Israelis fail to acknowledge is that their present conundrum is all-too familiar to citizens in many democratically-lapsed countries throughout the globe in recent years. Viewing the Israeli experience in comparative perspective not only increases the understanding of current challenges, it also offers insights into how to meet them.

The democratic world is in the midst of a major democratic recession. Literally dozens of liberal democracies — many with long-standing credentials — are undergoing a palpable deterioration in their capacity to protect individual liberties and minority rights (illiberalism); retain effective institutional checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power (neo-authoritarianism); and maintain norms of mutual tolerance and respect for the rule of law, despite growing social diversity and increasing internal tensions (populism).

The democratic slippage everywhere evident has not passed over Israel: for the past decade, quietly, almost surreptitiously, Israel has been one of the first to evince these notable characteristics of democratic erosion. This process in Israel, as elsewhere, has been orchestrated by democratically-elected governments, usually adhering to legal formalities and dedicated to remaining in power through the gradual — sometimes almost unnoticeable — chipping away at the pillars of liberal democratic life. The result has been the replacement of consensus-seeking moderation backed by institutional and individual safeguards with a majoritarian, formal, definition of democratic subsistence.

With the acceleration of the shedding of its liberal democratic trappings in the past few years, Israel under Netanyahu on the eve of 2020 now resembles a host of veteran post-liberal democracies such as Argentina under Peron, Peru during the reign of Fujimori, Orban’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey, Papandreou’s Greece, Berlusconi’s Italy, Rafael Correa’s Ecuador, and Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela (not to mention first-term contemporaries in the form of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Donald Trump in the United States). These countries share four defining features (as Takis S. Pappas so succinctly portrays in his April 2019 article on “Populists in Power,” in the Journal of Democracy) — all pertinent to present-day Israel.

The first is charismatic leadership. Non-liberal democracies with strong populist overtones are closely associated with attractive, articulate, mobilizing leaders who have the capacity to control their political movements (often by eradicating liberal voices from within their parties) and building up broad popular support for themselves and their goals. As the perceived threats to Netanyahu’s tenure have grown recently with his double failure to form a ruling coalition and his indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, his reliance on the unconditional backing of Likud sycophants has risen exponentially. The expectation of personal loyalty in return for the pursuit of a common mission — in this case the promotion of an ethnocentric definition of an Israel dominant over the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river — has become the mainstay of the Netanyahu-led majoritarian project.

The second characteristic of non-liberal democracies is polarization. Studiously cultivating divisions between different groups and perspectives is not, in these instances, merely a matter of ideological differences of opinion. It is seen as a strategy that defines the people (in contrast to the previously dominant elites) and links them inextricably to the leader. Polarization is used to prevent compromise, deter the formation of cross-cutting coalitions and spread enmity to replace efforts at mutual understanding. It is the stuff of populists in office: Netanyahu’s recent anti-Arab invective and harangues against the left are casebook examples.

The third element of non-liberal democracy focuses on the takeover of the state apparatus. It has come to mean the systematic dispensation of jobs to administration loyalists (for the latest in a long list of such sinecures, vide Netanyahu’s latest appointments to the Minister of Justice and State Comptroller). It also involves the undercutting of what remains of the institutional checks and balances in the system (most notably attacks on the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the media, civil society organizations and critical elements of the educational system). Inevitably, this process also entails efforts to tamper with the constitutional foundations of the state. Netanyahu’s belated support for the basic law, “Israel: The Nation-State of the Jewish People” is an obvious case in point, as are the (to date failed) attempts to change the laws affecting prime ministerial immunity and judicial review through the legislation of an override clause. Taken together, these efforts are designed to cement control of the state apparatus by the current rulers and their followers.

From here, it is but a short step to the fourth feature of non-liberal democratic governments: the widespread dispersion of state resources as patronage to supporters. Such allocations may be used to shore up critical sectors (as in the case of the ultra-Orthodox) or serve the interests of particular groups (settlers, for one). Needless to say, wholesale use of patronage comes at the expense of common interests (health, education, social services) and can easily lead to entrenched corruption. Indeed, populists in office, by constantly seeking to benefit followers at the expense of liberal critics, continue to drive a wedge between themselves and their opponents.

Non-liberal democracies, because of their distinctly un-institutionalized nature, are not doomed to remain so. Some, indeed, have become entrenched (Argentina and Greece during certain periods) and others have become full-fledged autocracies (Venezuela in recent years), but several have reversed the trend towards democratic collapse. Israel today is not alone in trying to recapture its liberal democratic mantle. This process, comparatively, has generally involved several identifiable components. The first relates to the fading of the charisma of the dominant personality in the system. Whether Prime Minister Netanyahu is aware of these precedents or not, clearly he knows that his ability to muster the adulation of Likud backers has waned (the poor turnout for his support rally last week drove home this point).

More significantly, breaks within the support wall of populist leaders of the ilk of Mr. Netanyahu have often yielded broad coalitions that bring together disparate groups and interests in a combined effort to oust a problematic leader. These frequently include public figures who have broken with the ruler and join his opponents in the name of the common good. Such was the case in inter-war Finland and more recently in countries as diverse as Columbia and Sri Lanka. In many respects, the hodgepodge agglomeration which is the Blue-White alliance is similar in composition and in its commitment to liberal democracy as these comparative and historical precedents.

The political challenge posed to democratically-elected autocrats is reinforced, too, by incumbents in unelected institutions — senior bureaucrats, police officials, justices — who buttress the demand to abide by the rule of law and to pursue the rules of the game. Israel’s electoral deadlock is very much an outcome of the rallying capacity of these forces. It highlights not only the extent to which the country is divided, but also the resilience of its liberal underpinnings.

The tug-of-war between these two dominant camps has yet to be resolved. Eventually, this will not happen through changes in the electoral system or behind the scenes machinations: it will have to be cemented at the ballot box. But even then it would be useful to remember that when Benjamin Netanyahu, the embodiment of Israeli populism, departs the political scene, the non-liberalism that ushered him into office and helped maintain him in power will not dissipate of its own accord. The perceptions of asymmetry and inequities that fueled the division of the country into two camps and enabled exclusionary ideas to take hold will not disappear in Israel — as the experience of other countries in similar situations demonstrates — until their root causes are addressed. That will be the main task of the heterogeneous democratic camp if it hopes to sustain a return to substantive democracy down the line.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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