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Is Israel a Democracy?

Political Systems in the Middle East

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Is Israel a Democracy?

An Israeli Arab woman casts her vote at during the Israeli General Election on January 22, 2013 in Abu Ghosh, Israel.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Israel is a republic with an uninterrupted tradition of parliamentary democracy going back to the state’s founding in 1948. Relative to other regional countries, Israel’s system of government most closely resembles the Western standards of democracy. However, politics in Israel is heavily influenced by security considerations, a result of the perpetual state of confrontation with the Palestinians.

System of Government: Parliamentary Democracy

Most Middle Eastern republics developed strong presidential systems over the course of the 20th century. Many Arab leaders served life-long mandates. By contrast, the position of president is largely ceremonial in Israel, and top executive powers are in the hands of the prime minister. Members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, are elected for a four-year term in general elections, where voters chose party lists, rather than individual candidates.

The mandate to form the government is normally awarded to the leader of the political party that wins most seats in the parliamentary elections and is able to secure majority support for a proposed government cabinet. When the government majority breaks down it usually leads to early elections. The parliament also elects the president – ideally a senior politician with cross-party appeal – and can remove him through a simple majority vote.

Political leaders are not free from scrutiny. Among the most prominent case is the 2010 conviction of former president Moshe Katzav for rape. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert was forced to resign over corruption charges in 2009 and was later given a suspended sentence for breaching the public trust.

Political Parties: Large Coalition Governments

Israel is typically governed by large coalition governments that reflect the country’s political and cultural diversity: between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews, Jews of Middle Eastern and European descent, and, ultimately, between the Jewish majority and the Arab Palestinian minority. The minimum threshold of votes needed to enter parliament is set deliberately low, at only 2%, to ensure wide political representation of these diferent sections of society.

The result is a very vibrant and often chaotic political scene. More than 30 political parties contested the 2013 elections, and 12 of them entered the parliament. Because no party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-member Knesset, the government’s support often hangs by a thread, giving even small fringe parties considerable sway over government policy.

This system ensures that no one political group can claim full dominance over the others, making it difficult to imagine an authoritarian leader emerging in these conditions. The flip side is that coalition partners, who often have little in common, find it difficult to achieve consensus on divisive issues. It’s common for coalition members to walk out of the government and prime ministers rarely serve a full four-year term.

Criticism of Israel: The Palestinian Issue

However, Israel’s critics at home and abroad say the country’s democratic credentials are being fatally undermined by its treatment of Palestinians. Israeli Palestinians, who have the right to vote and stand in elections, say in practice their communities have little representation in state institutions, and face systematic discrimination in employment, education, and public investment. Many Palestinians living on territories Israel occupied in 1967 are driven off their land to make way for Jewish settlements, which are treated as de-facto part of the State of Israel, even though they are considered illegal by most of the international community.

Israel identifies itself as a “Jewish and democratic” state. But many liberal Israelis, such as the former parliament speaker Avraham Burg, lament the rise of aggressive religious nationalism and point to a growing clash between the two poles of Israel’s identity. Israeli human rights groups point to new legislation that penalizes some forms of criticism of Israeli settlement policy on the occupied territories. On the other hand, Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, retorts that Israel’s democracy remains resilient and remarkably progressive given the hostile conditions in which it emerged and considering the security threats it faces.

At any rate, there is little hope for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The issue of reconciling the values of Israel’s political system with the security considerations of the state will remain at the heart of debates over the direction of Israeli democracy.

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