Israel’s Democratic Backsliding

Gabriela Baghdady, Editor

Israel has stood as a unique example of a stable democracy in the Middle East for decades. However, in the last several years, political science scholarship has begun to raise questions as to whether Israeli democracy is under threat. Given the evidence that Israel is experiencing democratic backsliding, in what manner is this occurring, and what implications does it have for the country’s future?

Israel has had a unique history, making its regime trajectory a point of interest for many academics in political science scholarship. Not only is Israel one of the few democracies in the Middle East, it has achieved remarkable economic progress and democratic stability despite the hostility within its geographical location. For most of Israel’s history, it has been involved in violence with many of its neighboring countries—for instance, the first Arab-Israeli War was launched in 1948, just days after Israel declared its independence. [1] Despite involvement in many armed conflicts, Israel has boasted a technologically advanced economy and a robust and competitive electoral democracy for decades. In addition, the state of Israel’s democracy can have direct effects on the dynamics with its Middle Eastern neighbors. An Israel that slips into authoritarianism and foregoes its democratic norms may further destabilize the already volatile region.

Israeli democracy shows indications of backsliding in multiple ways, the first being through the recent decline in civil liberties and political rights. In July 2018, the Nation State Law was enacted in Israel. This law is a “basic law,” which is considered equivalent to a constitutional law in Israel. According to the Nation State Law, “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people;” Hebrew is the official language of Israel while Arabic holds “special status;” and Jewish settlement is a national value. [2] Other legislation passed in 2018 allows the Israeli interior minister to revoke Jerusalem residency for individuals believed to be involved in terrorism or guilty of treason, adding onto an existing law stipulating that non-Jews living in Jerusalem can lose their residency if they left their home for an extended period of time.

Israel also has mechanisms for combating opposition to government policy, another measure that harms democracy. A law in 2016 allows for the removal of Knesset members who incite racism or support armed struggle against Israel—Freedom House notes that this law has been considered to target Arabs in the Knesset. Individuals or groups can also face lawsuits if they support a boycott of Israel or its West Bank settlements under a 2011 law, and in 2017, this became legal grounds for banning access to the country. Similarly, there have been measures both passed and proposed to limit the rights of non-government organizations (NGOs) either supporting boycotts of Israel or relying on foreign funding (a 2016 law increased disclosure requirements for NGOs in the latter situation). [3]

Discrimination is seen in the allocation of government resources as well: “the fact that Arab villages and towns are not designated as development areas and towns and are denied grants, loans, tax exemptions and other privileges to which they are entitled according to objective socio-economic criteria constitutes a further example of discrimination. [Another] example would be the practice of granting child allowances not only to veterans but also to Jews who did not serve in the army, while denying the same allowances to Arab non-veterans.” [4] The stifling of political opposition and the lessening of minority rights in the Israeli democracy show a correlation with authoritarian regimes and represents a symptom of democratic backsliding.

Though Israel’s recent anti-democratic measures are troubling, this does not necessarily mean the country’s democracy will shatter. Israel, however, does show a symptom of what political scholars Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq would term constitutional retrogression, which “involves a simultaneous decay in three institutional predicates of democracy: the quality of elections, speech and associational rights, and the rule of law.” [5] In constitutional retrogression, the democracy faces systematic erosion but not full collapse. Israel is certainly witnessing one aspect of this erosion—the decline of individual rights in legislation that marginalizes Arabs and non-Jews in the country and stifles opposition.

However, despite the evidence of democratic backsliding, the future of Israeli democracy remains yet to be determined for two main reasons: the fact that the Israeli government has remained in a state of limbo since no coalition has been formed since the September 2019 elections, and because what will come of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s indictment is not yet known. Future government policies may show more alignment with democracy, or they may cause even more widespread damage to institutions and rights. Likewise, the Israeli judiciary may uphold democratic rule of law in its proceedings with the indicted Netanyahu, or the exact opposite may occur. These two developments will prove pivotal for the survival of Israeli democracy.

[1] Lesch, David. The Arab-Israeli Conflict. New York, Oxford University Press, 2018.

[2] Halbfinger, David, and Isabel Kershner. “Israeli Law Declares the Country the ‘Nation-State of the Jewish People.’” The New York Times, 19 July 2018, Accessed 10 December 2019.

[3] Freedom House. “Freedom in the World 2019: Israel.” Freedom House, Accessed 10 December 2019.

[4] Neuberger, Benyamin. “Israel’s Democracy and Comparative Politics.” Jewish Political Studies Review, vol. 1, no. 3/4, 1989, pg. 67-75.

[5] Ginsburg, Tom, and Aziz Huq. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” UCLA Law Review 78, 2018, pg. 79-169.