The holy land's unholy democracy

Israel's prized democratic values are being eroded by its electoral system


By Lawrence Joffe, March 18, 2010
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Israelis have always proudly dubbed their country, "the only democracy in the Middle East". Despite wars, crises and the challenge of absorbing millions of immigrants, all citizens can vote, regardless of origin, and debate is vigorous, not least in the press. Nor has Israel ever suffered a military coup.

But Israel's claim to uniqueness no longer quite holds true. Several regional states have changed governments through the ballot box: Turkey in 2002, Lebanon in 2005, the Palestinians in 2006; even Iran. Israelis may decry most results, yet democracy is the inalienable right to choose the wrong leader.

Abraham Lincoln had a more positive definition: government of the people, by the people, for the people. So, does Israel match up to this standard?

Well, time and again, security pushes socio-economic considerations off the agenda. Meanwhile, wealth disparities stand at record levels. And this is not a matter of a left-right divide. Labour leader Amir Peretz went to the 2006 polls championing welfare reform, then abruptly insisted on the defence ministry, despite his lack of military experience, and within months mismanaged Israel's morally suspect war in Lebanon.

The Peretz debacle merely reinforced the myth that generals make the best politicians. Uniquely among Western-style democracies, former chiefs of staff still parachute into highest office, invariably proving to be less capable of negotiating than of giving orders.

In one respect, Israel's ultra-pure proportional representation is the very acme of democracy. Virtually every opinion is aired; essential, perhaps, in a land where two citizens have three opinions. Yet no MK is answerable to constituents; and tiny parties can make or break a Prime Minister. The resultant grand coalitions may make sense during emergencies (and, based on British regulations of 1945, Israel has formally been in a state of emergency since independence) but can democracy really thrive under this sword of Damocles?

To be in opposition is to be a freiyer, a sucker. Neither Labour nor Likud developed proper alternative strategies when out of power. And, after Kadima deputy leader Shaul Mofaz recently devised a peace plan, his boss Tzipi Livni saw it as his attempt to unseat her.

If coalitions are inevitable, why vote at all if parties will join together anyway after the polls close. Equally disheartening is the dearth of ideological rigour. In 2009, after Labour received its worst drubbing in history, reduced to a paltry 13 seats, Ehud Barak promised to regroup in opposition. Days later, he marched his largely unwilling coterie into an alliance with Likud.

Last month, Netanyahu again tried to woo Kadima into his coalition. As it is, one in three Knesset members is now a minister. Evidently, portfolios are dished out as bait rather than to choose the best person. Is this "government for the people"?

Most worrying are recent attacks on cherished rights. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman demanded loyalty oaths for Arabs; MKs called for banning Naqba demonstrations; after the Gaza War, members of the dissident NGO, New Profile, were arrested and had computer files seized; one MK tabled a bill to demote Arabic as an official language; and a senior minister damned Peace Now as a "cancer". During the election campaign, a motion was passed to outlaw Arab parties. As before, Israel's Supreme Court rescinded the edict. Paradoxically, the most truly "democratic" institution is the one for which nobody voted.

Meanwhile, settler rabbis encourage troops to disobey orders, disenchanted Arabs and Charedim intimidate police with violence, and "incitement" has become the buzzword that the least tolerant fling at their detractors. Can we be surprised at disrespect for democratic values when voters see how politicians behave? Even party primary elections resulted in naked vote-buying that led to Ariel Sharon's son's imprisonment. A whole range of senior politicians face serious allegations and charges.

Adopting a carbon copy of Westminster - MPs' duck ponds and all - hardly seems an alternative. Nonetheless, certain features could benefit Israel: true constituency MKs might address long-neglected local issues; a second chamber may heed minority interests and check the excesses of elected demagogues.

Democracy may be the "least bad form of government" and Israel's version the freest in the region, but unless it can instigate a viable opposition and find a way to overcome the constant stalemate coalitions, the nation's hard-won liberties are in danger of being frittered away.

Lawrence Joffe is a writer and political commentator

    Last updated: 4:35pm, June 3 2010

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