Israel is Still a Free Country – But Now With a Warning Sign

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A top democracy index hasn't yet ranked Israel with Hungary. That will change if the majority becomes all powerful

In its annual index, published on March 9, 2023, Freedom House gave Israel a score of 77 out of 100 and the designation “free.” This refers, of course, to 2022, and thus does not reflect the current “reform” project, which is almost certain to lower that score. The report’s editors stated this explicitly: “the new government’s agenda posed a direct threat to judicial independence and other democratic principles, as well as to the basic rights of Palestinians.”

The Freedom House Index is one of the prominent international measures of the degree of freedom or democracy in countries around the world, along with V-Dem and The Economist’s Democracy Index. Although there are many differences in these studies’ methodologies and their results, ultimately, they paint much the same picture, including with regard to Israel.

To begin with, they all reflect a broad concept of democracy and pose questions that refer not only to the existence of competitive elections – a criterion for democracy in the narrow sense as well – but also to many other aspects: The protection of individual rights (such as equality, property, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of religion), the rule of law, free media, independent universities, government transparency, the struggle against institutional corruption, freedom of activity for human rights organizations, and of course – an independent judiciary.

The Freedom House Index, for example, is based on 25 questions that fall into two categories, “political rights” and “civil liberties.” Sixty out of one hundred points are allocated to the questions on civil liberties – that is, democracy in the broad sense. The Economist’s index also defines civil liberties as a core aspect of democracy, while V-Dem distinguishes electoral democracies from liberal democracies.

This is an important point. It is sometimes asserted that terms such as “liberal democracy” and “substantive democracy” were coined by Israeli jurists to serve as antidemocratic ammunition against the principle of majority rule, in order to preserve the power of the old elites. But leaving aside the sociological argument, these international indexes clearly demonstrate that the idea that democracy is mainly or entirely majority rule is not accepted in the world.

The common view is that democracy is expressed also – and perhaps chiefly – in adherence to values such as equality, protection of individual rights, strong and independent law-enforcement agencies, and a system of checks and balances. It is important to emphasize: Each of these principles are important in their own right, but also­ – because they are a prerequisite for democratic elections. For example, it should be obvious, that if a majority currently in power limits the minority’s freedom of expression, the next election will not be truly democratic. In the Israeli context, it is clear that we will no longer have democracy, even in the narrow sense, without a strong and independent Supreme Court that protects the rights of Arab parties and candidates to run for office. Without the Court, the coalition, thanks to its control of the Central Elections Committee, could disqualify parties and candidates as it sees fit.

A not-really-liberal democracy

Second, in all the indexes, Israel ranks at the bottom of the list of liberal democracies or at the top of the list of the not-really-liberal democracies. Freedom House gives it a score of 77 and “free.” While it is not really close to falling into the group of “partially free” states – Hungary, India, Mexico, Serbia, the Philippines, Georgia, Tunisia, Armenia, Singapore, Lebanon, and Pakistan, to name a few, It could be added to that list if, for example, it lost five points on questions about political rights. All the same, today it is very far behind the 43 countries and territories with a score of 90 or more – which includes not only long-established western democracies but also countries in Latin America (Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica), East Asia (Japan and Taiwan), and Eastern Europe (Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Slovakia). The Economist’s index defines Israel as a “flawed democracy,” but with a score of 7.93 that is only slightly below the 8.0 that would make it a “full democracy.” V-Dem sees Israel as a liberal democracy, but uncomfortably close to the line between liberal and merely electoral democracies.

This finding should not surprise us. We are well aware that Israeli democracy is far from perfect. There should be no doubt: In light of the circumstances, the very fact that Israel is a liberal democracy or a free country – or at least almost so – is an incredible achievement, bordering on a miracle. Along with this, however, Israeli democracy is indeed flawed in many respects: ranging from the religion and state relationship, through equality and freedom of expression, and concluding with the status of the Arab minority (and we haven’t yet mentioned the occupied territories, which all these indexes do not relate to). When it comes to democracy, our starting point is already problematic, even before the planned “reform.”

The proposed reforms would be even more harmful to Israeli democracy. It is difficult to estimate just how many points Israel would lose on the international indexes; that depends on the specific reforms that would be imposed, their actual ramifications, and whether the authors of the indexes would be severe or lenient in their judgment of Israel. But we can certainly “wager”, that on several questions, Israel’s Freedom House score would be lowered.

These begin with the independence of the judiciary, on which Israel currently receives the maximum score – 4 points out of 4. But if the current proposals are enacted, the status and independence of judges and ministry legal advisors will be dealt a lethal blow, and there is no doubt that Israel’s score would plummet.

The same can be anticipated for the question on due legal process. According to the directions in the index, this requires full independence of all those involved – judges, prosecutors, and police. The proposed reforms would undermine not only the independence of judges, but also that of prosecutors and the police (in part as a result of the “Ben-Gvir Law,” which would subordinate the police to the Minister of National Security, and of another law that would alter the status of the Police Investigation Division). Another question on which Israel could suffer relates to efforts to combat official corruption. There is no shortage of problems here: The Deri Law that would permit convicted felons to serve in the Government, the Gifts Law that would allow elected officials to receive contributions from the public to help defray their legal and medical expenses, the difficulty of enforcing Netanyahu’s conflict-of-interest arrangement, and, more generally, the attacks on law-enforcement personnel that deter them from conducting additional investigations of government corruption.

Not an academic exercise

But all this is the rosy picture. The gloomier prospect, which includes bills that were submitted but not yet advanced and clauses in the coalition agreements, would undermine freedom of the media, academic and educational freedom, labor unions, human rights organizations, religious freedom, and more. Each of those is an important component of democracy and is allotted its own four-point question by Freedom House. The worst-case scenario – the abolition of the High Court’s ability to protect fundamental democratic rights such as freedom of association, and even the right to vote and be elected – would do such severe damage, that it would no longer be possible to view Israel as a democracy.

The idea that democracy goes far beyond elections is not an Israeli invention. This is the concept of democracy prevailing all over the world. Countries subscribing to a narrower definition of democracy have discovered that the world refuses to go along. Within ten years, Poland has lost points on the Freedom House index; Hungary, 22.

In some international indexes, Israel has already been losing ground in recent years. In the Freedom House Index for 2017 its score was 80, and this fell to 76 a year ago, and 77 this year (the rise was thanks to the improvement in the security situation in 2022, after Operation Guardian of the Walls in 2021). There was a similar decline in its ranking by V-Dem (but not by the Economist). We are still very far from the plunges recorded by Poland and Hungary, but the reforms being advanced by the coalition are liable to move us in that direction.

It is important to understand that this is not an academic exercise. A retreat from democracy would impact every aspect of our lives – the economy (a drop in the country’s credit rating and in foreign investment), the IDF (exposure of soldiers and senior officers to criminal prosecution abroad), and the rights each and every one of us is entitled to enjoy, but especially members of vulnerable groups – Arabs and women. It would make Israel a much worse place to live.

The article was first published in the Times of Israel.