What is a Democracy?
Democracy can be defined as a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them through a system of representation. This is usually through periodically held free elections, where all votes cast have equal weight. That is the situation in Israel today. Israeli politics permits Israelis of all ethnic groups and religious beliefs, including Arab-Israelis, can actively participate in the election process. Democracy can have different forms, some parliamentary, some representative, others presidential. Like the UK government, the Israeli government is a parliamentary democracy.
Origins of Israel’s Democracy
Today, Israel’s democracy is rooted in the social and political structures of the people who first returned to Israel. These aliyah’s (immigrations) occurred in several waves, from 1882 to 1948. The first immigrants came from Eastern Europe, with the goal of political, national, and spiritual restoration of the Jewish people in Palestine. This Zionist agenda aimed to establish a Jewish state and formerly became a political organization in 1897 under Theodor Herzl.
By the end of the second Aliyah (1904-1914), immigrants had made a profound impact on the complexion and development of modern Jewish society. Most new immigrants were young people inspired by socialist ideals, and political parties were founded. The significant point is that the returning Jews brought with them their own social and political structures (different from those of the societies within which they lived) and these became the bedrock of Israeli democracy.
As in the UK, Israel is governed by a multiparty parliamentary system. The government is headed by the Prime Minister, who is elected in nationwide elections for a period of four years. Israel also has an elected President, a largely apolitical ceremonial role, with the real executive power lying in the hands of the Prime Minister. The President of Israel is the elected head of the State; whereas, the Prime Minister is the appointed head of the government. The President selects the Prime Minister as the party leader most able to form a government, based on the number of parliament seats his or her coalition has won. After the President’s selection, the Prime Minister has forty-five days to form a government. There is also a judicial system with courts.
Israel’s Political Parties (post 2015 elections)
Israel’s Parliament (the Knesset) has legislative power and comprises 120 members who are elected for a term of four years in nationwide elections. The electoral system is based on nation-wide proportional representation i.e. the 120 Knesset seats are assigned in proportion to each party’s percentage of the total national vote. The 2015 elections gave the following results, link:
- Likud, 30 seats (right-wing nationalist party, believing in the right of Jewish people to the land of Israel)
- Zionist Union, 24 seats (labour party, generally supports concessions to the Palestinians)
- Joint List, 13 seats (Israeli Arab interests and the Two State Solution)
- Yesh Atid, 11 seats (center of Israeli society – the secular middle class)
- Kulanu, 10 seats (focus is economic and cost-of-living issues)
- The Jewish Home, 8 seats (right-wing religious party, supporting settlements)
- Shas, 7 seats (the ultra-Orthodox religious party)
- Yisrael Beiteinu, 6 seats (a nationalist party)
- United Torah Judaism, 6 seats (non-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox party)
- Meretz, 5 seats (left-wing Zionist, advocating Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank)
In 2015 the Likud party (leader Benjamin Netanyahu) picked up the most votes and formed the coalition government with the Jewish Home, United Torah Judaism, Kulanu, and Shas. Likud is right-wing and a nationalist party, initially inspired by the ideology of the revisionist Zionist leader, Zev Jabotinsky, link. For decades it has alternated in government with Labour (currently Zionist Union).
Improving Israel’s Democracy
Not all is well with Israeli politics. As already mentioned, a fundamental characteristic of a democratic system is the free vote by the people. But in recent elections some claim that one in every 4.5 people (excluding Gaza) was denied political representation, and that one person was almost always Palestinian, link. Such claims lead some to see only a veneer of democracy in Israel, achieved by ethnically cleansing indigenous Palestinians from their homes. It is also claimed that democracy cannot be established exclusively by voting [Professor Zeev Sternhell]:
Democracy is tested every day in terms of human rights. All the rest is secondary, because you can easily, by casting a ballot, establish a dictatorial regime
Israeli Politics: The Israel Democracy Institute reforming democracy
The Israel Democracy Institute aims to address some of these concerns. For instance, it recognises:
- the need to accommodate the great diversity in Israel’s society
- the need to integrate ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities
- the need to integrate Arabs into Israel’s workforce
- the need to explore the tension between Judaism and human rights
These democratic objectives parallel the Old Testament injunctions to Israel to accommodate the stranger (non-Jew):
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you should do him no wrong … (he) … shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself
So non-Jews should be welcomed, but they must accept the existence and land-rights of national Israel. Sadly, this goal seems impossible to fully realize as long as the Palestinian leadership reject the State of Israel.
The Knesset Christian Allies Caucus (KCAC) is another government initiative reaching out to non-Jews, link. Formed in 2004, it recognizes the contribution that Christians around the world are making to the security of the State of Israel and to the welfare of the Jewish people. The caucus aims to forge direct lines of communication between Knesset members and Christian leaders, organizations and political representatives in Israel in order to mobilize political support for Israel.
Democracy by Freedom
In comparison with other Middle Eastern countries, Israel represents ‘freedom’. Israel is the only Middle Eastern country to rate as “free”, according to the latest annual report by Freedom House, a top U.S.-based pro-democracy NGO. Ranking as “free” under Freedom House’s criteria requires “open political competition, a climate of respect for civil liberties, freedom of expression, significant independent civic life, and independent media.”
So today for example, Israelis of all ethnic groups and religious beliefs, including Arab-Israelis, can actively participate in the election process, and all votes cast are equal in weight, link. Also, Israel is one of the few places in the Middle East where Arab women may vote.