Is Israel's Democracy in Crisis?

| Written By:

IDI’s President Yohanan Plesner and Canadian jurist Irwin Cotler on the challenges facing Israeli democracy in the months ahead.

Yohanan Plesner and Irwin Cotler | Photo: Hadas Parush

Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute, and Prof. Irwin Cotler, a world-renowned human rights activist who served as Canada’s Justice Minister and Attorney General – and was nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize – sat down to discuss the state of democracy in Israel. Prof. Cotler is also one of the latest additions to IDI’s prestigious International Advisory Council.

“I would begin by moving toward a culture of respect for democracy and for the institutions of government, and refrain from the kind of prejudicial, polarizing and stigmatizing discourse we are now witnessing,” Cotler said. “The way to fix the current situation is to promote legislation that will provide a very strong incentive for the emergence of two-party blocs within our parliamentary system,” said Plesner. Here is the fascinating interview in full:

How do you see the state of democracy in Israel today, in light of what appears to be increasing anti-democratic legislation, and increasing criticism of the judicial system and other gatekeepers such as the attorney-general and the media?

Plesner: I look at Israeli democracy in the context of what’s happening in the rest of the world. I would say that there is a democratic recession and a certain level of erosion in democracy. In the last decade or so, about 25 states have turned from democratic to non-democratic, so there is a shift occurring throughout the world. In Israel, we have a unique situation of a democracy that is under security threats coupled with our identity, that combines national, religious and cultural elements in a very fragmented society.

Israel is also experiencing its own democratic crisis, but if I compare it to what’s happening in the rest of the world, we are still a liberal democratic state with a stable democracy, despite the real challenges that we face. One of these challenges is the surge in anti-democratic legislation over the past decade – and I hope this trend of targeting our substantive democracy will not continue. The good news is that, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that most of the anti-democratic bills that have been proposed, have not been passed by the Knesset.

Cotler: I agree with Yohanan’s approach, and I think that’s the right way to begin the discussion: by contextualizing it from a global perspective. I think what we’re seeing today is a resurge of global authoritarianism, as manifested in the conduct of Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and others, as well as illiberal democracies and a polarizing populism on the far Left and the far Right.

Israel belongs in the category of what Yohanan terms a democratic recession, revealed in some international indicators.

For example, the Knesset recently celebrated its 71st anniversary, and yet polls showed that only some 28% of Israelis have trust in the Knesset as an institution. Another recent poll by Maariv showed that a majority don’t trust the legal system. And the question is why?

I believe the answer has to do with the polarizing discourse in this country, and especially when this comes from government officials speaking about the institutions of democracy in a prejudicial fashion. Members of the judiciary and the Attorney-General, for example, are referred to as left-wingers, when that word has a pejorative connotation. Such prejudicial critiques of the courts, the media, the police, and the basic institutions of democracy, tend to erode trust in the democratic and legal system, something that I find disconcerting.

What steps do you think Israel can take to preserve and strengthen its democratic system?

Cotler: One could begin by changing the nature of the discourse by introducing a culture of respect for democracy, courts and the rule of law – in contrast to a culture that at this point is becoming increasingly prejudicial. I also believe, for example, that the Knesset should not pass prejudicial or constitutionally suspect legislation, especially retroactively.

Plesner: To build upon Irwin’s important remarks, it’s time now – especially after the elections – to aspire to political initiatives that will unite us, and seek a broad consensus around the basic questions of the rules of the game, and the institutions that govern our lives.

There are propositions that a vast majority of Israelis agree on, such as legislating basic laws that regulate the relationship between an independent judiciary and the Knesset, and passing basic basic laws only with a significant majority. Both of these initiatives preserve the rule of law directly and also strengthen the independent institutions that protect the rule of law. I think these types of proposals can change the entire nature of discourse, and encourage Israelis not to look for enemies from within, but rather to begin to celebrate what brings us together.

Is Israel governable in the current political system – and how should it be changed?

Plesner: Our political system today is dysfunctional. The parties as institutions are broken and fragmented, and that’s why we see new parties emerging and collapsing. The number of parties in the Knesset is extremely high, making any coalition ungovernable. The way to fix the current situation is to promote legislation that will provide a very strong incentive for the emergence of two-party blocs within our parliamentary system. A political system with two main blocs would lead to the emergence of reinvigorated, larger and more influential parties.

Cotler: The Israeli system is close to the Canadian system, because both are parliamentary systems. But I recall a time, not too long ago, when you’d have two large parties – about 45 seats for the Likud and 45 seats for Labor – and a situation in which people would identify with larger blocs. We’ve had a debate in Canada about this too, and I think the proportional system is probably the right one for Israel, as it gives minorities and various groups a voice.

But what worries me is the fragmentation that currently characterizes the Israeli political system, and I think this is not unrelated to the prejudicial discourse that we talked about earlier, and the need for consensus around fundamental values and respect for the basic institutions of a democracy.

The article appeared in the Jerusalem Post.