The new government offers a timely opportunity to review and assess Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership in terms of its impact on Israeli democracy.
The common impression given by the media and public discourse in Israel would seem to be that Israeli democracy has suffered a mortal blow over the last 12 years. Particular criticism is levelled at perceived failings in terms of corruption, separation of powers, and freedoms of opinion and of speech for political opponents.
Throughout this period, Israel has also been assessed from the outside by independent research institutes and experts in various countries, and graded on various aspects of its democracy. To the surprise of many, an inspection of the scores awarded to Israeli democracy in these assessments over the years, reveals a far more complex picture than the one often painted here in Israel. In other words, according to most international indicators, there has not been a substantial change in the quality of Israel’s democracy over the period of Netanyahu’s rule. Though there have certainly been declines in some areas, Israeli democracy has more or less remained stable in most of the aspects examined by these indicators, and Netanyahu’s premiership has not had significant impact, for better or for worse.
The area that has been most affected is that of democratic rights and freedoms, which includes ,among others, such issues as free competition among political parties, the protection of minority rights, freedom of expression, and individual freedoms. In two indicators published by Freedom House, one focusing on political rights and the other on civil liberties, the scores awarded Israel in 2020 were lower than those in 2009 (when Netanyahu came to power), 6.5% and 8%, respectively. The trend over the entire period was one of either no change or a slight decline in the scores from year to year (by up to 3% per year). At the same time, it should be noted that Israel is currently defined by Freedom House as a state in which there is only “partial protection of civil liberties,” whereas at the beginning of this period, it was defined as a state offering full protection of civil liberties. A slightly greater drop is seen in Israel’s scores in the World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, in which the bulk of the overall decline of 11% came at the beginning of the previous decade, and since then Israel’s score has not changed significantly.
In the area of governance—which includes such issues as parliamentary oversight of government, trust of the public and government figures in the laws of the state and compliance with them, and the system of checks and balances among the different branches of state—the situation is very different. In one indicator (the World Bank’s rule of law indicator) Israel’s score has improved (a rise of 9% between 2009 and 2015, followed by a decline of 3% over the following five years). In a second (the Economist Intelligence Unit’s functioning of government indicator), despite the harsh criticism leveled at Netanyahu’s governments, there has been no real change in Israel’s score over this period, as it dropped by 5% during the first half, and then climbed back to 2009 levels during the second half.
Conflicting trends in scores awarded to Israel relating to the democratic process (voter turnout in parliamentary elections, levels of political participation by citizens, the way in which political decisions are made and so on). In two of the six indicators in this area, Israel’s score has improved: In the World Bank’s voice and accountability indicator, there has been a slight rise since 2009; while in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s political participation indicator, Israel is ranked second in the world, and its score has risen slowly but steadily by a total of 13% over the last 12 years. In two indicators, there has been no change: The V-Dem Institute’s Egalitarian Component Index shows a rise between 2009 and 2012, followed by a moderate decline; and in the democratic political culture indicator (again produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit), there has been no change in Israel’s score over this period. In two other indicators, there has been a slight decline: Israel’s score in the V-Dem Institute’s Deliberative Component Index rose by 1% between 2009 and 2017, and then dropped sharply by 4% in recent years; while its score in the same organization’s Participatory Component Index has fallen by 3%, mainly over the last year.
In two economic indicators—the World Bank’s regulatory quality indicator and the V-Dem Institute’s Equal Distribution of Resources Index—the picture presented is complex. In terms of regulation quality (the extent to which the state formulates and advances rules and regulations that facilitate the development of the public sector), Israel’s situation has improved significantly, as its score has risen by 5%, with most of this increase emerging in the two years immediately following Netanyahu’s rise to power, and since that time, this score has remained stable. But at the same time, according to the Equal Distribution of Resources Index (measuring poverty rates and economic gaps), Israel has become less egalitarian, with a decline of almost 6% in its score, all of which has come since 2016.
And what about corruption, which has attracted the greatest public attention in recent years? Has Israel become a more corrupt state under Netanyahu, according to international assessments? In a word, no. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Israel’s score has dropped by just one percentage point over this period, while its score in the World Bank’s control of corruption indicator has remained unchanged.
In sum, according to a range of international indicators, Netanyahu’s premiership (which was certainly a stormy period in terms of domestic politics) did not mark a nadir for Israeli democracy relative to other countries. Instead, Israel has more or less maintained its position above the median in most of these indicators.
|Indicator||Research Institute||2009 score||2020 score*||Change (%)|
|Political rights||Freedom House||90||82.5||-8.3|
|Civil liberties||Freedom House||76.7||71.7||-6.5|
|Freedom of the press||Reporters without Borders||77.7||69.1||-11.1|
|Voice and accountability||World Bank||61.4||63.7||3.7|
|Political participation||Economist Intelligence Unit||83.3||94.4||13.3|
|Democratic political culture||Economist Intelligence Unit||75||75||0|
|Functioning of government||Economist Intelligence Unit||75||75||0|
|Rule of law||World Bank||66.8||71||6.3|
|Perception of corruption||Transparency International||61||60||-1.6|
|Control of corruption||World Bank||66||66||0|
|Regulatory quality||World Bank||72.o||75.6||5|
|Equal distribution of resources||V-Dem||85.6||80.7||-5.7|