Israel’s Third Juncture in History

The State of Israel is at the third major juncture in its history. The first was when it was created in May 1948, improbably reconstituting a polity that had been destroyed almost 1900 years earlier. The second juncture was in June 1967, when Israel’s victory over Arab armies gave Israeli Jews dominion over the lands of their ancestors’ kingdoms, and also brought what was initially about 1.3 million Arabs under Israeli control with no prospect of citizenship. The third juncture is now, as the Knesset is set to decide what kind of democracy Israel will be.

The structure of a democracy is not self-evident. Plenty of autocracies have elections, and many protect the rights of citizens. And while many democracies are secular, they can incorporate strong religious parties, such as the Christian democrat parties in Europe and Latin America. Similarly, democracies like Japan can have durable majorities that rule for decades.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the enduring characteristic of a democracy is that rules sharply encumber the majority. Such rules ensure that the majority does not become permanently entrenched, encourage minorities to work inside the system rather than trying to undermine it, and protect minority groups from permanent marginalization.

As the Biden administration is all too keenly aware, the U.S. system is full of constraints on political power. The constitution, a bicameral legislature, and an independent judiciary are all checks on the White House.

Other democracies put fewer constraints on the executive branch. For example, the UK system is very close to Israel’s: there is no constitution, the parliamentary majority elects the prime minister, and an independent judiciary constrains politicians.

With its current judicial reform bill, Israel appears to be on the brink of abandoning that last principle.

It is not hard to imagine why many Israelis—although perhaps not a majority—wish to do so. They see the judiciary as an artifact of the secular Ashkenazi elite’s domination of the state in its early years. They see the courts obstructing Israel’s destiny to be a Jewish state, and not merely as a state of Jews. They seek to support religious institutions, to advance adherence to Jewish law, and to increase the Jewish population in their historic lands. Not incidentally, some wish to diminish the power of a wealthy coastal elite that they accuse of naivete toward Israel’s enemies and indifference to its own disadvantaged citizens.

With a strong parliamentary majority now in hand, they see this as a crucial moment to change permanently Israel’s political equation.

And that is precisely why so many Israelis are alarmed. Stripping out encumbrances from Israeli democracy could lead to the entrenchment of a permanent majority in Israel and the permanent disenfranchisement of millions of Israelis. It could lead to durable changes in the way citizens are taxed and subsidies are distributed. It could lead to the granting of rights and entitlements that could change the complexion of the state, as well as the denial of the same to citizens and non-citizens alike who live under Israeli control.

The optimistic view of this is that Israel will seesaw between extremes as unencumbered majorities swap places and desperately try to undo what they see as the excesses of their predecessors. Under this scenario, Israel would embark on a period of volatility and profound polarization.

But the more dangerous prospect is that parties that essentially got the same number of votes as their opponents in last November’s elections would seek to secure themselves in power using a temporary mandate to create a durable majority. The current government’s large margin in the Knesset is a function of hundreds of thousands of Israelis voting for opposition parties that did not meet the minimal threshold for inclusion, not that it enjoys the support of 60 percent of Israelis. As a government that took power through an idiosyncrasy in the rules, and one which is led by a party that has often fanned fears of Arab electoral malfeasance, it is hard to imagine it would not seek to perpetuate its control.

This leaves aside the fact that the Israeli government shapes the lives of millions of Palestinian Arabs who have no vote in Israel and little prospect of one. As the current Israeli government exerts more control over their lives and, in the eyes of many, worsens their conditions, the prospect of its permanence could have its own political implications.

None of this is to diminish that Israel’s government took power by winning an election, but the danger is the prospect of “one man, one vote, one time,” as former U.S. assistant secretary of state Edward P. Djerejian memorably worried about Algeria in 1992. Because Israel does not have a constitution, and because it has a unicameral legislature that is in sync with the prime minister, electoral majorities in Israel have few constraints.

For decades, unwieldy ruling coalitions in the country provided barriers to dramatic change, as secular, religious, right- and left-wing parties were variously thrust into government together. The courts have provided another barrier. Israel’s current ruling coalition, and the judicial reform proposals the Knesset is voting on this week, sweep those barriers aside.

Israeli voters are certainly entitled to evolutionary change, but current ideas about judicial reform are revolutionary in their implications. An unfettered legislature threatens any democracy as much as an unfettered executive does. Authoritarian leaders can act more dramatically and more swiftly than their democratic counterparts. Yet after a time, they often grow overconfident and make profound mistakes. Their countries suffer the consequences for decades.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program