On April 20th, 2020, a large step was taken by the two major political parties in Israel, a step towards ending the highly polarized series of elections that Israeli citizens had to face over the last year. However, in the New York Times article “Israelis Find Little to Love in Their New Government, Except No More Elections,” Halbfinger and Rasgon detail the concessions made by both parties to come to the recent deal, with neither side’s supporters satisfied with the outcome. This article will examine the implications of this deal for democracy in Israel, insofar as it leads either to democratic backsliding or resilience.
Ongoing with the string of elections that characterized Israeli politics for the last year was the indictment of Prime Minister Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party. He was indicted on three charges of corruption by the attorney general in November 2019, an action he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of, going so far as to call it a “witch hunt.” This type of rhetoric, far from what Amy Gutman refers to as “an economy of moral disagreement” in “The Lure and Danger of Extremist Rhetoric,” reveals the polarization in Israeli politics that Netanyahu is playing upon. Furthermore, his bid for immunity indicated his motivation for staying on as the Prime Minister for as long as possible, as mentioned in the New York Times piece, to sway the Supreme Court that will try him in his favor. Netanyahu’s refusal to bend to the laws, going so far as to manipulate them in his favor, is a classic example of executive aggrandizement that Nancy Bermeo cites as an indicator of democratic erosion in “On Democratic Backsliding.” The deal struck between himself and Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White Party, only enables Netanyahu’s aggrandizement.
Furthermore, the article cites the attitudes of some of Gantz’s supporters, who feel as though their votes have been stolen, considering his promises to never serve under a leader facing indictment. Gantz throwing his lot in with Netanyahu after three elections with no majority formed was a complete turnaround from his attitude while campaigning, drawing criticism not just from his voters but also members of his own party, such as Yair Lapid, Gantz’s former partner. This lack of faith from voters in their politicians is dangerous for democracy, as cited by Martin Seymour Lipset in “Some Social Requisites of Democracy” when he stresses the importance of the perceived legitimacy of the government for its efficacy. Lack of legitimacy and faith in the government in institutions is also addressed by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book “How Democracies Die,” citing a lack of institutional forbearance as an indicator of democratic erosion.
The effect of this lack of legitimacy has already been realized in some of Gantz’s former supporters, such as the woman, Miri Paperni, interviewed in the article who said it might be best to “detach ourselves from reality.” Apathy towards democratic proceedings from citizens hinders the proceedings themselves. Robert Dahl, in “Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition,” articulates three necessary conditions for democracy, starting with the ability of citizens to formulate their preferences, which in itself is inhibited by citizen’s apathy. These apathetic tendencies are also studied by Foa and Mounk in “The Signs of Deconsolidation” and are cited by them as the first indicators of democratic deconsolidation.
Further in the New York Times article, Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, is quoted as saying the deal violates democratic norms, particularly those regarding the traditions that give the opposition party certain powers, such as running the Parliamentary economic committee and a hand in judge selection. According to the deal, these traditionally opposition-held powers are given up to the Likud Party and Netanyahu, the latter power being pivotal for Netanyahu’s future hearing by the Supreme Court. While also feeding into executive aggrandizement, this portion of the deal also violates the democratic bargain as written about by Karl and Schmitter in What Democracy Is . . . and Is Not.” Due to path dependency, the powers given up to the majority party could be withheld from the minority party in the future, which does not bode well for the future of democracy in Israel.
The article also acknowledges the current COVID-19 pandemic as being an excuse for the deal, which points to a general trend in democratic backsliding. In times of emergency, the fragility of democracy is laid bare, with executives being given more powers in order to avert the emergency. Another effect of states of emergency is the insecurity that comes with it for citizens, making them more susceptible to autocratic appeals in the hopes of attaining the perceived, former security, a phenomenon documented by Wike and Fetterolf in “Liberal Democracy’s Crisis of Confidence.”
Overall, the deal between Gantz and Netanyahu is one that the citizens do not approve of, which is indicator enough of the deal as detracting from Israeli democracy. The fact that this deal occurs with the pandemic in the background only further indicates the democratic erosion that it represents for Israel, as well as the democratic erosion that could result from the pandemic worldwide.