Israel is a Democracy: Summary
Israel is a western-style democracy where Israelis (citizens of Israel) from all ethnic groups and religious beliefs can participate in regular elections. So voters are Israeli citizens, irrespective of religion, and that includes the 21 percent Arab-Israelis. All votes cast are of equal weight. Perhaps partly because of this democratic freedom, 77 percent of Israeli Arabs prefer to live in Israel than elsewhere.
That said, some deny Israel is a true democracy by claiming that some Palestinians are denied political representation. And there remains the need to better integrate ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities. On the positive side, Israel is one of the few Middle East countries where women have the vote.
As in the UK, Israel is governed by a multiparty parliamentary system and the government is headed by the Prime Minister who is elected in nationwide elections for a period of four years. But, unlike the UK, Parliamentary seats are allotted using proportional representation (as in many European countries).
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.
Early Political Structures: 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.
1948: A Democracy is Declared
On May 14, 1948, Israel declared the establishment of the State of Israel. So, on 15 May 1948 (i.e. once the British Mandate over Palestine had expired), the new State established her democratic principles, link:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. [emphasis added]
Clearly, all the inhabitants of Israel, Arab and Jew, were to enjoy the benefits and freedoms of a democracy. Sadly, as soon as this fledgling democracy was declared, five Arab armies (Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq) invaded Israel, so starting Israel’s ‘War of Independence’.
Israeli Arabs Enjoy Israel’s Democracy
In 2018, 70 years after the declaration of a democracy, the non-Jewish population in Israel stood at over 2 million, representing over 25% of the Israeli population, link. Over these 70 years, the Arab citizens of Israel have availed themselves of the open society that Israel created in 1948. According to polls, 77 percent of Israeli Arabs prefer to live in Israel while only 21 percent want to live in a Palestinian state, link. Why? Perhaps because they look at the incredible slaughter and chaos in the Middle East with millions of Arab refugees living in dire poverty.
Life Expectancy: Thanks to universal healthcare, Arab Israelis have the highest life expectancy in the Middle East when compared with the populations of 21 Muslim and Arab countries, [Taub Center for Social Policy Studies]. Arab life expectancy is 79 years, the same as in the United States, link. Overall, life expectancy in Israel is well above that of other Middle East countries, link.
Israeli Arab Satisfaction: According to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute – Peace Index, most Arab Israelis (60.5%) described their personal situation as “good” or “very good” and 55% said they are “proud citizens” of the State of Israel. That said, the same survey found that over three-quarters of Arab Israelis do not believe that Israel has the right to define itself as a Jewish state.
Israeli Arabs in Authority: On a more formal level, non-Jews are a key fabric of Israeli society. There have been Israeli Arab members of the Knesset (Israel’s government) ever since the first Knesset elections in 1949, and as of 2018 there were 18 such members in the Knesset [Wikipedia]. Israeli Arabs also serve as Israeli ambassadors around the world and as generals in the Israeli army, link.
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 a 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.” For “open political competition” read “democratic voting”.
So Who can Vote?
The term Israeli refers to a citizen of Israel. So we find for example Israeli Jews, Israeli Christians and Israeli Arabs (note that Israel prefers the designation ‘Israeli Arabs’ rather than ‘Israeli Palestinians’ perhaps because the latter might be seen as politically contradictory, link). Voting is a right granted to every Israeli citizen who has reached the age of 18 or older on election day. So Israelis of all ethnic groups and religious beliefs, including Arab-Israelis, actively participate in the process, and all votes cast are equal of equal weight, link. Also note that Israel is one of the few places in the Middle East where Arab women may vote.
Voting itself takes place only in Israel, with the exception of diplomats, soldiers and sailors who are allowed to vote with absentee ballots, link.
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.
Israel’s Government Today
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).