In the Middle East, no country is more democratic than the State of Israel, as evidenced by the Democracy Index of 2019 . However, the strain put on Israel’s political system in the past year has put Israelis’ faith in their democracy in jeopardy. In the last 12 months, the nation has held 3 elections . Each time, neither the conservative nor the liberal parties were able to form a majority coalition, called a “government”. This means that the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, has been stuck at a halt. This has allowed the conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to retain his position because the liberal coalition has been unable to form a majority and unseat him. However, Netanyahu is being tried for three criminal cases, including bribery . With the chaos of a country dealing with an improperly-functioning legislature and a leader having trouble with the law over corruption, a massive worldwide crisis caused by COVID-19 was exactly what Israel didn’t need. Benny Gantz, the would-be Prime Minister with a liberal-majority coalition, intervened just in time to break the gridlock. Gantz has reached a short-term deal with the conservatives, allowing Netanyahu to remain Prime Minister in exchange for conservatives helping to elect Gantz to the position of Speaker of the Knesset . While many of his former allies are now criticizing Gantz for going back on one of his foundational campaign promises—to unseat Netanyahu—this move was an attempt to restore the functionality of Israel’s democratic governmental system during a worldwide crisis. This move is a win for Israeli democracy, as Benny Gantz is putting the future of his country’s democratic government above his own political goals.
According to the Democracy Index, Israel’s score of 7.86 out of 10 puts the small nation only 0.10 points, or just 3 spots, behind the United States . No country in the Middle East comes close to this mark. Yet, Israel’s democracy had been proving to be ineffective over the last year as each of three rounds of elections failed to produce a government. A massive public health and economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 required a working government, and if the current representative system wouldn’t work, Israelis may have needed to undercut their democratic institutions to respond to the effects of the virus. According to Linz, a lack governmental efficacy is a major element behind the breakdown of many regimes . On top of this, a crisis without an adequate national response can greatly increase feelings of governmental illegitimacy, setting the stage for pushes for alternative solutions to Israel’s current system. In order to prevent any sort of attack on the legitimacy of Israel’s democracy, Gantz decided he needed to take drastic action.
By working with the opposition, Gantz has restored the efficacy of Israel’s democracy. In his actions, he took Levitsky and Ziblatt’s important values of “mutual toleration” and “forbearance” to a new level . He is not only accepting his rivals as legitimate—even with their leader being currently charged with corruption—but he is actually willing to take somewhat of a backseat to them for the time being. He is not only refraining from his right to attempt to form a liberal government, but he is actually joining his opposition in this emergency government. Through his actions, he has put democracy and his country above his party.
While Gantz’s order of priorities may seem to be obviously correct to many, this way of thinking is not as common as one might expect. A major example of this is present in Venezuela, where the ruling liberal party has been undermining democracy for decades. Although an overwhelming amount of Venezuelans support a democratic system of governance, most leftists still continue to vote for leftist politicians instead or right-wing candidates who would repair their country’s broken democratic institutions . Many Venezuelans are putting their party above democracy. In comparison to the Venezuelan case, Gantz certainly appears to be doing his country a great service.
Some counterarguments would point out that Gantz is undermining democracy by allowing Netanyahu to remain Prime Minister without having formed a conservative government. Some would say that he is undermining democracy by going against the votes of liberals who supported him under the promise that he would remove Netanyahu. Both of those statements are completely valid, but in both cases, these effects are restricted to the short term of Israel’s response to coronavirus. Sure, this move has complicated the politics within his own “Blue and White” party and given unearned power to a corrupt leader, but it has set the course for Israel to remain a democracy in the long run. Gantz justified the move by saying that these “unusual times” called for an “unusual decision,” and he will use this opportunity to “get [Israel’s] system of checks-and-balances back on track” and “bolster [Israel’s] democracy and reinforce it” . Gantz understands that a short-term sacrifice during the coronavirus crisis can be very beneficial for democracy in the long run. Because of Gantz’s actions, Israel will remain a beacon of democracy in an undemocratic Middle East for years to come. “EIU Democracy Index 2019 – World Democracy Report.” The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited, The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2019, www.eiu.com/topic/democracy-index.  Huggard, Kevin, and Natan Sachs. “Timeline: A Tumultuous Year in Israeli Politics.” The Brookings Institution, The Brookings Institution, 21 Dec. 2019, www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/12/19/timeline-a-tumultuous-fall-in-israeli-politics/.  Sachs, Natan. “The End Is Nigh for Netanyahu: Israel’s Prime Minister Faces Possible Indictment in Three Criminal Cases—Just in Time for National Elections.” The Atlantic, 2 Mar. 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/03/end-nigh-netanyahu/583975/?utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=the-atlantic&utm_term=2019-03-02T11:00:17&utm_content=edit-promo&utm_medium=social.  Liebermann, Oren. “In Apparent Victory for Netanyahu, Rival Gantz Drops Allies, Moves towards Unity.” CNN, Cable News Network, 27 Mar. 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/03/26/middleeast/israel-benny-gantz-elected-speaker-intl/index.html.  Linz, Juan J., and Alfred Stepan. The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.  Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Crown, 2018.  Svolik, Milan W. “Polarization versus Democracy.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 30, no. 3, 2019, pp. 20–32.