Gabriel Weimann

Will the promise of democracy prevail in the Promised Land?

Winston Churchill once argued that democracy “is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” The legendary British statesman’s words come to mind as the Israeli people face a seemingly unthinkable political scenario: two national elections in one year.

April’s election resulted in a frustrating dead-end following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failed attempts to form a government, necessitating new elections in September. This has left both Israeli citizens and observers across the globe dumbfounded.

Some will argue that the political tumult in Israel illustrates the weakness of the democratic electoral system, not only in the Jewish state but throughout the Western world.

What exactly explains the failure of Israeli democracy to establish a stable, strong, and long-lasting government? Several factors come into play:

  • Israeli society is highly divided and in fact, multidimensionally divided along several uncorrelated lines: Jewish-Arab, religious-secular, Ashkenazi-Mizrahi, right-left, new immigrants-longtime Israelis, and so on.
  • These divisions are manifested in the party system, as there are numerous Knesset parties representing “narrow” interests of certain demographic segments such as ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arabs, immigrants, and others.
  • This creates a dramatically segmented race in which no less than 24 parties are campaigning, with 16 parties winning Knesset seats in the latest election.
  • Thus, no single party can reach the required majority (61 seats out of 120 in the parliament) and the party which wins the most seats must build a coalition to form a government. Yet with the conflicting, polarized, and hard-to-satisfy parties involved, it is exceedingly difficult to form such a coalition and in the case of April’s elections, impossible to do so.

With Netanyahu failing to unite enough parties under the umbrella of a majority government, Israel is forced to wait again for new elections which may not change much on the ground but might carry a significant cost for Israeli society.

Can Israel — with its security threats, risky conflicts with terrorists and their patrons (like Iran and North Korea), internal social and religious tensions, and the legal charges against Netanyahu — afford an unstable, temporary, and weak government?

This is not an isolated issue. Democracies around the world are going through troubling times, with the annual Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit recording 2018 as history’s worst year yet for global democracy.

Specifically, disillusionment with the practice of democracy is most clear in “functioning of government,” the lowest-ranking category within the Democracy Index — including consistently low scores for transparency, accountability, and corruption. In those areas, there was little to no progress in 2018 on a global scale. In the worst-scoring question in the functioning of government category (and the entire index), on confidence in political parties, the score continued to fall in 2018.

It was hardly the first year that democracy has been on a downward trajectory. In 2006, Freedom House designated 46 percent of the world’s population as living in countries with open political competition, guaranteed civil liberties, strong civil society, and independent media. By 2018, the proportion of those living in such conditions of freedom had dropped to 39 percent.

Even worse, democracy is now facing new competitors in the shape of less liberal, more conservative, more rightist, more personality-based systems. These frameworks seem to be driving creeping authoritarianism in several states, such as Hungary and Poland.

Israel could be headed in the same direction with its emerging clashes between politicians and legal institutions, attacks on freedom of the press and free speech, growing schisms in society and their manipulation by parties and campaigners, the use of negative and aggressive campaigns, and the assault on democratic and liberal values by extreme parties.

When all is said and done, will the promise of democracy prevail in the Promised Land? That is where we return to Churchill’s comments. There are certainly plenty of holes to poke in democracy, especially when it produces a murky result like the aftermath of Israel’s April 2019 election. But is there a viable alternative?

Democracy is not perfect. Yet in time, it still prevails — even if it takes multiple elections in a single year.

About the Author
Dr. Gabriel Weimann is a professor of communication at the University of Haifa, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, and the author of nine books, including “Terrorism in Cyberspace: The Next Generation.”