In the latest issue of the Shalem Center’s journal Azure, editor-in-chief Assaf Sagiv lambastes what he terms Israelis’ “disdain for democracy.” His chief gripe, based on how much space he devotes to it, seems to be Israel’s response to the recent Arab revolutions; that Israelis insist on worrying about the possible consequences instead of applauding the revolutionaries wholeheartedly is, to his mind, evidence of an “anti-democratic mood” rather than rational concern rooted in countless historical precedents of revolutions gone sour (for starters, recall the French, Russian and Iranian ones).
But he also cites evidence that at first glance seems far more credible, and that many Israeli intellectuals have used to level the same charge: the 2010 Israel Democracy Index, in which 60% of respondents voiced a yearning for “strong leadership” that would solve problems effectively and 55% said Israel’s situation would be better if less attention were paid to “the principles of democracy” and more to “observing the law” and “public order.”
That, however, is not a marginal point; it’s the key to the whole issue. For while bad autocracies are simply disasters (think Zimbabwe or North Korea), “good” autocracies do offer certain advantages alongside their drawbacks.
For instance, democracies are notoriously bad at long-range planning; facing reelection every few years inevitably leads politicians to focus on the short term rather than the long. In contrast, “good” autocracies often excel at long-range planning. Think Singapore, which in a few short decades transformed itself from a colonial backwater to a first-world country that consistently outperforms Israel on everything from per capita income to student test scores, or post-Mao China, which has raised hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty in recent decades. Indeed, it’s no accident that many of Israel’s most beneficial long-term investments, from the national water carrier to the universities, took place during the state’s first three decades, when the governing Mapai party had no real rival and thus didn’t worry much about reelection.
What democracies offer in exchange is, first, freedom from fear: No Israeli who criticizes his government will be jailed for years on trumped-up charges as Chinese dissidents routinely are.
But perhaps even more importantly, democracies satisfy a deep-seated human craving for autonomy, for the ability to exercise some control over one’s own life. The bargain they offer their citizens is, essentially, this: You’ll put up with the inefficiency inherent in frequent changes of government and fractious parliaments where passing anything requires messy compromises, but in exchange, you’ll have the ability to affect what your government does, what decisions it makes, where it leads the country.
Thus a democracy where most people feel they lack that ability has betrayed its side of the bargain. And when that happens, it’s inevitable that despairing citizens will begin thinking, “in that case, maybe a ‘strong leader’ would be preferable. At least the trains would run on time.”
This isn’t a problem that can be solved by spuriously accusing Israelis of anti-democratic tendencies; it can only be solved by addressing the underlying causes of their feeling of disenfranchisement. For this feeling is not groundless; it’s rooted in a very real flaw in Israel’s democracy: an electoral system that provides no mechanism for throwing the bastards out.
The way voters influence policy in most democracies is by the threat that a politician who defies their wishes won’t be reelected. But because Israel is one of the last remaining democracies where voters still elect parties rather than individuals, Israelis lack the ability to make such threats.
It doesn’t matter how much Israelis might loath Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or opposition leader Tzipi Livni, for instance; as long as they head their respective parties, they are guaranteed reelection. Disappointed voters can slash the number of seats a party receives, but those at the top of the list will still get in.
Similarly, it doesn’t matter how much Israelis might like an energetic back-bencher who proved a principled and effective legislator; if disappointment with those at the top of the party’s slate results in the party losing seats, those farther down the list will lose their jobs.
Thus Israeli leaders can defy their voters with impunity – and often do. Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza after campaigning explicitly on a pledge not to do so is a prime example. And this merely deepens voters’ sense that their vote is meaningless.
As a result, Israelis are increasingly choosing one of three options: not voting at all (turnout has decreased from around 80% in the state’s first half-century to under 65% in three of the last four elections), voting for fringe parties that either fail to enter the Knesset or win a few seats but exert no influence, or voting for a mainstream party while loathing everyone in it. As one voter said of his decision to vote for Livni’s Kadima party in 2009, “I think her party is atrocious, it has terrible people in it, but I had no choice”: It was the only real alternative to Likud. None of the above options are conducive to bolstering Israelis’ faith in the merits of democracy.
Israelis’ “anti-democratic mood” stems from the objective fact that Israeli democracy isn’t delivering democracy’s chief good: enabling the public to influence policy. Unless that problem is solved, no amount of scolding will reverse this mood. And there’s only one way to solve it: by reforming the electoral system so that Israelis can finally elect their MKs directly, just as voters in other democracies do.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.