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*The stunning photo in the header of my blog is all thanks to Ron Shoshani. Visit his facebook page for more of his amazing photographs of Tel Aviv!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Israel & Peace: Is Democracy Really the Question Here?

The question is posed time and time again, "Is Israel really a democracy?"  Nearly every Middle East political scientist has wondered about Israel's democratic status since the country's establishment.

The answer to this question, of course, depends on your definition of democracy. Princeton's WordNet defines democracy as:


  • S: (n) democracy (the political orientation of those who favor government by the people or by their elected representatives)
  • S: (n) democracyrepubliccommonwealth (a political system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them)
  • S: (n) majority ruledemocracy (the doctrine that the numerical majority of an organized group can make decisions binding on the whole group)

If this is the definition we go with, then Israel is certainly a democracy, albeit a dysfunctional one.

Take a look at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs webpage that outlines the representative structure of Israel's government. Israel has an elected Parliament, called the Knesset, which is "proportionally representational".   Israel's government is elected by the people to represent the people.

There are multitudes of political parties. Here's an official list (in Hebrew) of all of the Israeli political parties.  When an Israeli voter goes to cast their vote, they are faced with a list as long as this one with shortened names of every political party.  I counted 86, but I may have lost track along the way. Go ahead and take a stab yourself.

Anyway, the way the system works is like this:

The number of Parliamentary seats a party wins in an election are determined by popular vote.  Numerical majority rule within the Parliament is required after each election, but because there are so many freakin parties, no one party ever wins a majority of seats.  So to create a majority, parties must for coalitions.

Forming a majority coalition requires a series of negotiations between party officials which usually this involve massive concessions made all 'round.  Once a majority coalition is created, party officials are initiated and the new government begins its governing.  New legislation is then passed by Parliamentary voting.

This is, in a way, a democracy at its most democratic: parties are relatively easy to form, and voters vote directly for their parties. However, the high number of political parties also creates problems. It becomes difficult for those elected to negotiate coalitions, making it a messy democracy. This is exactly what happened in 2009 when the Kadima party won the highest number of popular votes: Tzipi Livni, the head of the Kadima party and the technically "elected" prime minister, was unwilling to make the necessary concessions required to create a majority coalition. She decided it was better to concede her position as Prime Minister than to take the position after forfeiting her party' principles and ideology.

However, it is important to mention that Tzipi Livni's Kadima party, while still centrist, is committed to keeping Gaza and the West Bank under Israeli control.  Also, despite the fact that it did win the highest percentage of votes in 2009 at 22.47%, most other voters cast their vote for right-leaning parties, wth Likud, Netanyahu's  "central-right" party that has a rather "hawkish" policy towards the Palestinians, coming in second at 21.2% and Yisrael Beiteinu coming in third.  You can get the idea of how right Yisrael Beiteinu really leans from their 2009 political slogan, "No loyalty, no citizenship."  Most of Israel is right wing and most Israeli leaders are respected Army veterans. This necessarily means less general sympathy towards the Palestinian cause.

The question of Israel's democratic status was addressed by New York Times Op Ed Contributor, Toni Judt on June 9, 2010 in the article "Israel Without Cliches." Jundt writes:

"[Cliche]No. 2: Israel is/is not a democracy
Perhaps the most common defense of Israel outside the country is that it is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” This is largely true: the country has an independent judiciary and free elections, though it also discriminates against non-Jews in ways that distinguish it from most other democracies today. The expression of strong dissent from official policy is increasingly discouraged.

But the point is irrelevant. “Democracy” is no guarantee of good behavior: most countries today are formally democratic — remember Eastern Europe’s “popular democracies.” Israel belies the comfortable American cliché that “democracies don’t make war.” It is a democracy dominated and often governed by former professional soldiers: this alone distinguishes it from other advanced countries. And we should not forget that Gaza is another “democracy” in the Middle East: it was precisely because Hamas won free elections there in 2005 that both the Palestinian Authority and Israel reacted with such vehemence."

It has become increasingly clear that the greatest obstacle to peace in Israel is its own extremist population. The Israeli people are moving farther and farther right. The religious, who are almost entirely far right wing, have far more children and are quickly multiplying in numbers. This is happening at the expense of young leftists who feel more and more isolated and more and more jaded. 

As Gadi Taub emphasized in his Aug 29th NYTimes Op-Ed article, "In Israel, Settling for Less", the settlers and settlements are the big, big problem.  There is a growing number of Israeli religious extremists who are intent on creating and maintaining a biblical Israel.  These are the religious settlers who are not willing to negotiate with Palestinians. They are not willing to consider a two-state solution. And this is not only an obstacle to peace, but as Taub says, if maintained, these settlements will "doom Zionism itself...all 'one-state solutions' lead to the same end: civil war."

I have to agree.  This means that international pressure is essential to Israel's survival and essential to the development of any possible peace accord.  It is international pressure- not Israeli citizens- that will convince Israeli leaders to stop the settlements and to begin thinking about a real two-state solution. Let's hope that the negotiations which began this week will end with an agreement from Netanyahu to put an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.


  1. Interesting post. The idea that international pressure is the way to get Israel to "behave" makes a lot of sense, but is one of the most reviled by Israel supporters in the U.S., who see it as a breach of the relationship (remember the Biden flap?). I think that there needs to be more mobilization against settlements within Israel itself.

  2. I agree. I just don't think it's gonna happen.
    -jaded leftist

  3. Israel has been subject to international pressure from Day 1 of its existence. But political pressure from the community of democracies (the west?) is undermined by military pressure from the community of dictatorships, such as Iran, N.Korea (the east?).

  4. I don't think that the (west) is completely undermined by the (east). Yes, world politics are messy, but alliances still count for something. And money still talks.


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