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Illiberal Democracy Spreads in Israel

If the Israeli right keeps winning elections without any real challenge, the country’s liberal democratic institutions will continue to crumble

Shany Mor
October 25, 2018
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister and leader of the ruling right-wing Likud Party, at a campaign speech on Jan. 5, 2014Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister and leader of the ruling right-wing Likud Party, at a campaign speech on Jan. 5, 2014Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

For two generations, Israeli politics has been riven by one question: the future of the West Bank. A loose coalition of right-wing factions, nationalists, and religious parties wants to keep the territory conquered in 1967 and settle it with Jewish civilians, and an even looser coalition of leftists, liberals, secularists, and Arabs opposes this. For all the tribalism of Israeli politics, for all the multiplicity of parties and lists and platforms, general elections have turned on this question in its various iterations for half a century.

And since the 1970s, those elections have been mostly competitive. The Likud came out ahead in 1977 and eked out a tiny victory four years later in 1981, but then came out behind in 1984 and slightly ahead in 1988. It lost again in 1992 and then won in 1996 and lost again in 1999. It won again in the next Knesset elections in 2003, but lost again in 2006 before coming back to power in 2009.

And then the pattern broke. The right-religious coalition which came to power in the 2009 election didn’t get defeated in the next general election in 2013 nor in the one after that in 2015. Since Israeli elections started becoming genuinely competitive in the 1970s, no one has ever won three times in a row—until now. This new reality, the feeling of unstoppable victory on the right and irreparable doom on the left, has taken some dark and latent undemocratic tendencies that were always there and brought them out into the light to the detriment of both camps and of democracy in general.

Right-wing politics in Israel, with its oblique hypernationalism and its idealization of power, has always had a soft spot for illiberal majoritarianism. But what kept this illiberalism in check was not just the memory of being out of power for long periods of Israel’s history, but the assumption that even power once attained anew was only temporary. And railing against an elitist Supreme Court or out-of-touch public broadcaster was easy when you had no hope of holding the reins of government for long enough to completely reshape either.

But what happens when that assumption is broken? The Israeli right can no longer rely on its own better angels and it can no longer rely on its public to demand restraint. They’ve forgotten what it’s like to lose and, more ominously, now demand from their leaders all the populist policies that in the past were campaigned on but then safely abandoned under transparent excuses of coalition partners or legal counsel. The bumper rails are gone, and Israel’s overconfident right wants to keep throwing the bowling ball in every direction.

The opposite problem has manifested itself on the Israeli left. Here, too, a latent tendency was already there, but the fact of losing and losing again and losing a third time turned what had once been buried deep in the subconscious into a fundamental ideological tenet. The people, according to the new ideological consensus, simply cannot be trusted. Too racist to be respected, too stupid to know what’s good for them, and too impulsive to be capable of weighing Israel’s complex interests and challenges, they are best ignored. The place for politics is in high courts, civil society (especially global civil society), and, increasingly, in international organizations.

Once you’ve given up on winning a democratic election, it only makes sense that you might seek to impose your agenda by other means. The problem is, these means never succeed in delivering the promised results, and the turn to them only alienates the public further. It’s almost as if the Israeli left’s strategy is based on the idea that it can spend three years telling people how disgusting they are and then spend the fourth asking for their votes. Unsurprisingly, this is not a strategy for electoral victory.

In other words, behaving as if you’re doomed to lose is an effective way to keep losing. And there’s no reason to believe that the opposition to the Likud-right-religious coalition is doomed to lose. Opinion polling shows that the majority of the public has been more or less convinced by its argument that the occupation and settlement enterprise are unsustainable and bad for Israel. Acceptance of a Palestinian state and a withdrawal from most of the West Bank were fringe positions a generation ago (even in the era of Rabin, who never publicly accepted either of these positions); today they are a consensus.

It’s worth noting as well that the three times that the right was turned out of power in the last generation (1992, 1999, and 2006) it was always with a bigger majority than the right has managed to attain in any of its electoral victories before or since. But three consecutive defeats—the last one particularly heartbreaking as polls predicted a much happier outcome for the anti-right bloc—have blurred this memory and dulled the democratic instincts of the Israeli left.

There are still just enough institutional constraints on all parties in Israel to maintain the delicate balance of a functioning liberal democracy in a country without defined borders and in a constant state of conflict. But if the upcoming election in 2019 ends with yet another win for the Likud and its religious and ultranationalist satellites, we can expect the last restraints to fall. An emboldened right will settle scores with the universities, the high court, NGOs, and state-funded cultural institutions. And an embittered left will take its battles from the domestic political arena to the domains of global business, international courts, and foreign government action. Israeli democracy will be poorer all around.

Shany Mor is an Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College and a Research Fellow at the Chaikin Center for Geostrategy at the University of Haifa. He served as a Director for Foreign Policy on the Israeli National Security Council.