The Middle East’s only democracy is beginning to erode. Israel, although a flawed democracy, has maintained the sole title of democracy in the Middle East, which is overrun by authoritarian regimes and instability. However, throughout the past few years especially, certain leaders have chipped away at the core of Israeli democracy.
With the Israel-Palestine conflict put aside, Israel has its own internal factors that weaken it’s democratic legitimacy. Many of the grievances against Israel can be attributed to it’s past prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Not only is Netanyahu a staunch populist, but he was also indicted with corruption, charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. His rhetoric contributes to Israel’s growing polarization, increasing cleavages between different groups. While the future is not so bleak for Israel, as it still maintains many democratic elements and Netanyahu is no longer in power, his leadership revealed how fragile it’s democracy really is.
One of Netanyahu’s ploys to gain an influence was through the exclusion of certain groups, an indicator of democratic erosion. Through his speech and rhetoric, he alienated Israel’s minorities by indicating that Israel is solely a Jewish state. He made no effort to distinguish Israeliness and Jewishness, which excludes Israel’s other citizens.
Although Israel is itself a Jewish country, it is still home to many different religious and ethnic groups. After all, Jerusalem is the religious center of the world. Israeli-Arabs make up one-fifth of Israel’s population and have the same citizenship as Israeli-Jews. However, Netanyahu conveyed his skepticism towards Arab citizens in particular, using heavy sentiments to mobilize his constituents.
In a Facebook post, Netanhayhu’s party stated that “the Arabs want to annihilate us all — women, children, and men.” Trying to gain support of his Jewish audience, Netanyahu sought to alienate Arabs from the majority Jewish citizens. In the state of Israel especially, this language is not to be taken lightly, as many of the ethnic groups residing in Israel have historically faced their own form of persecution in one way or the other.
Netanyahu’s administration went so far as to pass the Nation-State Law, which defines Israel’s specific position as a Jewish state. Although Israel was created as a safe state for the Jewish people, this law excludes Arabs, implying that they are to be categorized as second-class citizens. Not only does this law further fuel anti-Arab sentiments, but it’s language subordinates the Arab minority to the Jewish majority.
Netanyahu took his sentiments even further. When it came time to head to the polls, he made several remarks indicating that he did not trust Arabs to vote. He warned that Arab voters were heading to the polls in “droves” and stated that there should be cameras installed in polling locations out of distrust for Arabs.
Remarks like these are dangerous. Israel was created as a safe place for Jewish people, as they received similar alienation throughout much of Europe in addition to the Holocaust. Israel is supposed to be a safe-haven, and this should not only be limited to Jewish residents, but all of its citizens, Arabs included.
An additional indicator of Israel’s democratic erosion is the corruption in Netanyahu’s administration. In 2019, Netanyahu was indicted on several corruption charges, all of which he failed to take ownership for. In fact, he misplaced blame, calling these charges a “failed coup attempt.”
Instead of responding with accountability, Netanyahu placed blame on his prosecutors and the entire legal system. He refused to accept the charges placed against him and used his polarizing rhetoric to try to gain an advantage. His lack of accountability is a factor that makes him so dangerous.
Although a new administration has since taken place and there is hope for the future, Netanyahu’s administration certainly did damage to Israel’s democracy. Netanyahu is no doubt a populist leader — his rhetoric left lasting impacts on his constituents, and he made remarks with such fervor and determination that it actually widened cleavages in Israel.
However, society didn’t shy away from voicing their dissent towards Netanyahu, a strengthening feature of Israel’s democracy. In response to his mismanagement of the pandemic, as Israel’s reopening of the economy led to an increase in cases, and in addition to pleading for his resignation, tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets in demonstration. These protestors, however, were met with force and many faced violent responses.
Israel still has a pretty strong democracy, don’t get me wrong. It likely won’t crumble entirely, as it still has many democratic elements and it is optimistic that Netanyahu was actually indicted of his corruption charges. Israel continues to have free and fair elections and there was a peaceful transition of power to the next administration. It still has a strong civil society, with citizens making their voices heard.
However, Israel’s democracy is so important to preserve that it can’t afford to weaken any more. It is geographically surrounded with outside threats to it’s democratic institutions, and internal threats posed by populist leaders such as Netanyahu add to this danger.
Israel is a democracy and country worth saving. As the Middle East’s only democracy, we cannot let it’s domestic leaders threaten it’s democratic survival any more.