Israel, A Fragile Democracy. Interview with Samy Cohen

Elections in Israel. Copyright: Shutterstock/Galy Estrange

Despite being at war for more than 70 years, regularly confronted with violent attacks, Israel has not fallen into an authoritarian regime and remains a democratic regime—yet fragile. How can this be explained, and what makes Israel different from other—to some point comparable—states? On the occasion of the publication of his book, Israël, une démocratie fragile (March 2021, Fayard), Samy Cohen granted us an interview.

Israeli democracy is threatened with erosion because of disappearing counter powers. As such, Israel is part of a more general movement affecting many other countries around the globe—Hungary in Europe, Turkey in the Middle East, Brazil in Latin America. What is different about Israel?

Since 2009, Israel has followed a similar path to that of Europe and to the United States under Trump, marked by a rise of populism and attacks against fundamental rights and freedoms. The year 2009 saw Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power, associated with the far right. During the twelve years since then, Israeli democracy has been the object of attacks, often violent, from political leaders who seek to weaken it. The coalition of parties on the right and far-right has attempted to destabilise previous years’ democratic progress. Without challenging the principle of free elections, the coalition seeks to silence the voices of the opposition and those who denounce human rights violations in the occupied territories. NGOs are constantly attacked. More and more ad hoc laws are enacted that affirm the preeminence of the Jewish character of the state to the detriment of its democratic dimension. Even the Supreme Court has its head on the block, asked to step aside in the face of the power of the “people’s elected representatives”. A form of aggressive patriotism has developed, turned not only against the enemy abroad, but also and mostly inward, against all those who do not share the vision of the right and of the settlers concerning the conflict with Palestinians. President Reuven Rivlin—a right-wing politician himself—was pushed in October 2017 to warn the government against its attempts to sack the pillars of democracy that are the press and the Supreme Court.

However, despite what its critics sometimes claim, Netanyahu’s Israel is not comparable to Erdogan’s Turkey with its brutal stranglehold on institutions and imprisonment of hundreds of opponents. Indisputably, Israel remains a democracy. Elections are competitive, they occur regularly and in a transparent way, and they allow all categories of the population to be represented at the Knesset. Despite being at war for more than 70 years, regularly confronted with terrorist attacks, the country has not fallen into an authoritarian regime. It has protected large areas of its citizens’ liberties. Gay Pride parades are held not only in Tel-Aviv but also in Jerusalem, the religious city par excellence. There are far more establishments and institutions open on Shabbat than there were in the past. The government’s legal advisor and the police have gained such power that they can jeopardise the political survival of a prime minister. The army, which is very popular, has always scrupulously respected the principle of subordination to a democratically elected civilian power, even when disagreements run deep.

The anti-democratic push that we have been witnessing recently is soft and insidious. Opponents are not put in jail but they are put under pressure, attempts are made to discredit them, to marginalise them, and they are labelled as traitors. Journalists who are too critical are pilloried and made into popular scapegoats. The Supreme Court is not suppressed, but attempts are made to make it inoperative.

The Netanyahu era is reminiscent of Viktor Orban’s in Hungary, and even Donald Trump’s. In Israel just as in Hungary and the United States, counter powers are attacked in the name of a so-called popular will. In February 2018, Netanyahu accused George Soros, a Jewish American billionaire of Hungarian origin, of funding NGOs that “defamed the state” and also accused him of attacking the plan to deport African illegal immigrants. Orban took similar steps and attacked Soros for his support of immigration. In Israel, attacks against the Supreme Court have not taken the same proportions as they have in Hungary, but the right’s official intention is to put an end to the control of the constitutionality of laws. The emasculation of the Supreme Court, the sole institutional counter power, would be a fatal blow to Israeli democracy. “Conservative” judges have been nominated to the Court, just as in the United States. Just like Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu is constantly seeking to divide Israeli society in order to strengthen his reign, while calling for national unity, when he needs it. It is difficult to say whether Trump copied Netanyahu or the opposite.

Is the left/right division similar to the one opposing the religious bloc to the secular bloc?

Only in part, because this cleavage is deeper. It opposes moderate, pragmatic nationalists, who founded the state and who are ready to discuss a political compromise with Palestinians, to intransigeant nationalists for whom the territory ranging from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River belongs only to the Jewish people.

Elections in Israel 2019. Copyright Shutterstock

Safed, Isreal, 6 February 2019. A man votes during the Likud party election, prior to the general elections of April 2019. Copyright: Shutterstock

You accuse Benjamin Netanyahu, in power since 2009, and to a larger extent the Israeli right, of flouting democracy. But what have opposition leaders done to deal with a situation that has only worsened for the last decade? And what about the position, or reaction, of intellectuals and civil society in the face or the erosion of liberal values?

This is one of the major causes of this democracy’s fragility: there is no political opposition worthy of the name, capable of stopping the anti-democratic wave. Left-wing parties have never been as weak as they are today. Israeli citizens are not as attached to the system of counter-powers as citizens of Western democracies where no one would accept attempts to gag judges. And even more than the independence of judges and the separation of powers, it is the capacity of public opinion and political parties to resist that is crucial for the preservation of democracy. “I also believe in the final victory of democracies, but on one condition, that they want to be victorious”, rightly stated Raymond Aron.

In the face of the attacks on the Supreme Court, public opinion has been overwhelmingly apathetic. In March 2020, more than half of the electorate reappointed a prime minister charged with three counts of breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud. With a few exceptions, Israelis do not protest against the abuses of their democracy. A small movement called “Black Flags for Democracy” is mobilising to demand the departure of Benjamin Netanyahu, but this type of resistance never attracts more than 10,000-15,000 demonstrators, and that includes not only defenders of democracy but also angry unemployed people.

Paradoxically, opposition to the right has emerged among… right-wing deputies who respect democracy. In Israel, a section of Likoud deputies—heirs of Menachem Begin, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin (son), President Rivlin—have adopted a position that is very different from that of the members of parliament who gather around the Prime Minister. Among opponents are also journalists, scholars (few), artists, and experts of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank based in Jerusalem. Their works feed the public debate.

Arabs could become a majority in Israel, but according to you Israeli society will never give them the same rights as the Jews. What will become of Israeli democracy?

It is to be feared that the word apartheid—which I dislike using—will become appropriate.

To explain the fragility of democracy in this country you give an institutional explanation, the absence of a written constitution in Israel. Could you tell us what the adoption of a constitution could help improve?

The absence of a written constitution is a weakness that should not be underestimated. Of course Great Britain does not have one either. However, this country has a solid democratic culture, anchored in its long history, to the extent that there is a saying that Great Britain is the “mother of democracy”. It has signed the European Convention on Human rights, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which Israel has not signed. The only provisions that protect human rights in Israel are the two basic laws of 1992—one on Human dignity and liberty and the other on Freedom of occupation. This is not much and these laws do not have the evocative power of a constitution. Imagine: Israeli democracy does not have a fundamental text on equality, and this lack is not accidental. It is the result of opposition by some right-wing political parties, in particular the ultra-orthodox. Above all, there is a flaw in the ease with which basic laws can be created and modified following the same procedure as ordinary legislation, without any in-depth debate and without any special majority. This allows political parties to challenge the fundamental rules of the game following short-term interests.

A constitution cannot solve all problems, but it could clarify the rules of the game, it could counterbalance the weak democratic culture of a great deal of Israeli political elites who readily conflate democracy with the power of the majority. A constitution could introduce more discipline among members of parliament who tend to impetuously legislate on any subject at all. It could be the opportunity to ask ourselves what the values of a democracy should be. Basic laws in Israel are like an unfinished symphony. There is still a lot to be done. However, in the current state of polarisation of the society, beginning a major institutional project would not be done without difficulty.

Israel une démocratie fragile, by Samy CohenIsraël. Une démocratie fragile is published in the series Les grandes Etudes Internationales, with Fayard. Visit the series' page on our website.

Interview by Corinne Deloy.

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