Why Israeli Democracy Is Unstable and Corrupt

Why Israeli Democracy Is Unstable and Corrupt

As Israel enters another round of elections, it seems clear that something is seriously wrong. Over the past two years, Israelis have gone to the polls three times to elect a government. On March 23, 2021, they will do so again. Each time, the government has fallen. This ongoing instability is largely a product of Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who has refused to give up power in order to avoid trial on various charges of corruption, and continues to lead the Likud Party. 

However, what is significant about Netanyahu is in fact how unremarkable, even how regular so much of his behaviour is for Israeli politics. In this regard, the current crisis is reflective of a number of ongoing problems that render Israeli democracy a highly unstable, significantly corrupt, poorly functioning system. Ultimately, it is the weakness of liberal institutions promoting mutual cooperation, social inclusion, economic openness, institutional accountability, and respect for procedure and rule of law, that continue to limit Israel’s progress. 

Political and cultural roots

To understand why current Israeli politics is in disarray, it is important to put it in the context of Israeli history and culture. Since its founding, Israel has put national defense and military issues at the forefront of priorities. Israel has been involved in many wars, and has been in a state of conflict with both the Palestinians and various regional neighbours  through to the present (recent Trump peace deals notwithstanding). As a result of these conflicts, Israel maintains an extremely large defense budget and requires military conscription or national service for a majority of the population.

As a result, most Israelis are socialized into a culture which prizes authority and dedication to the collective as one’s primary duty. Israelis are raised in a society which teaches them to obey the state and other major figures of authority for the good of their group and the nation overall.  This is illustrated by the practice of putting political figures on the walls of Israeli classrooms as figures to be revered. Authority-oriented collectivism is also reinforced by nationalist youth movements such as Bnei Akiva, Beitar, and HaShomer HaTza’ir. Throughout their upbringing, Israelis are socialized to valorize sacrifices made on behalf of the nation-state, and are prepared to enter the military and be willing to perform similar sacrifices on behalf of the collective. 

Collectivism is also reinforced by Israeli political culture, which is divided between two major camps. These are nationalist, and socialist. Unlike in many Western countries, the Israeli right is not “conservative”, but nationalist. To be on “the right” in Israel is to be in favour of a militaristic, expansionist Zionism and the growth of state sovereignty and power. Despite Netanyahu’s enactment of major market reforms as Finance Minister and later Prime Minister, ideas about free markets, individual rights, and limited constitutional government (in the vocabulary of many Western conservatives up until recently), are largely non-existent in rightwing discourse. They remain so despite the valiant efforts of liberal-minded Likudniks. Ideologically, the non-religious Israeli right originates from the thought of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Revisionist Zionism. While Jabotinsky and other Revisionists referenced liberalism, their ideas owe far more to nationalist and even fascist thought.

On the left, many favour socialism of an old-school variety. This includes significant nationalization or heavy regulation of industry, and strong protectionism. While most have abandoned outright central planning, particularly in the wake of Israel’s financial collapse of the mid 1980’s, a desire for a strong role for the state remains widespread. This kind of socialism can be contrasted with an agenda of medium-to-low regulation combined with high taxes and heavy transfers favored by many European social democrats. This is the case both for the center-left Labor Party, as well as for Meretz on the far left. Historically, leftwing parties trace back to communist and socialist Zionists, who favoured total state control of the means of production, and collectivism as a social ethic. Labor and the mainstream left also once favoured a more conciliatory approach toward the Palestinians, but has refrained from voicing this or from offering substantive criticism of right wing security and defense policy for years, if not decades. Notably however, the past 20 years have seen a major diminishment in the dominance of leftwing parties. This decline is the result of failures to resolve the conflict, as well as the growth of rightwing and nationalist contituencies among the Israeli electorate, as will be discussed later.

Thus, Israeli politics and culture are largely lacking much resembling a serious liberal strain, either of the left-liberal/liberal egalitarian or classical liberal/libertarian variety. Though Israeli culture has become more liberal over time (especially as a result of economic growth), it lags behind many other countries at similar levels of socio-economic development. In contrast with many other developed countries, Israel reflects a blending of individualism within a larger collectivist milieu. In this regard, both liberal culture, and the thought of liberal figures such as Theodore Herzl have some voice, but one that remains weak. Coupled with the larger emphasis on duty to the nation both in the military and as civilians, this has created a society with heavy emphasis on collective obligations and following leaders, and in a political system without real alternatives.

Normalized corruption

As discussed, many Israelis believe that obedience to authority and collective solidarity are the primary or even the only way to deal with social problems. However, Israelis also recognize that authorities are human beings, and that group decisions can be wrong. In particular, Israelis understand that authorities are capable of corruption and wrongdoing. Nevertheless, obedience to authority remains dominant because there are no popular alternatives. This is increased due to the perception that constantly obeying authority is vital for public safety. Since public safety is paramount, following the leader tends to crowd out other ideas. Thus, the only way to deal with the fact of corrupt authority is to normalize corruption. Indeed, to make it an expected part of politics as well as business and civil society. The centrality of “chutzpah” culture, or an ease with being rude and impudent, reflects the recognition that authorities and collectives need to be challenged. At the same time, chutzpah does not eliminate or structurally challenge collective hierarchies, it simply limits their reach by normalizing obstinacy. 

These dynamics are further explicated by the inclusion of two frequently used words. These are “freier” and “protectzia”. A “freier” is a sucker, someone who lost out or was screwed over. It is common to hear Israelis say “Don’t be a freier”, or “I didn’t do x because I’m not a freier”. Likewise, people in Israel will often ask each other if they have “protectzia”, or protection/personal connections. Protectzia means access to a crony, someone with influence and clout who will look after your interests, often for employment or institutional power. Both “freier” and “protectzia” reflect a fundamental fear of being exploited. They demonstrate a lack of trust in others, and an anxiety that cooperating rather than gaming the system will mean losing out. Such norms encourage regular defection from the game. 

In this regard, argument and conflict often occur in Israeli culture in many unhelpful, welfare-diminishing contexts, while cooperation often occurs in places which reinforce social divisions. Too often, the fear of being a freier and the normalcy of chutzpah create failures in solidarity and self-sacrifice. Thus, while Israelis are often quick to follow direct commands from authorities, norms of public duty absent a strict command structure are weak. This may help explain the rapid spread of Covid-19 in Israel, and poor adherence to public health measures.

The outcomes of this kind of system are explained by Michael Mousseau. In “The Social Market Roots of Democratic Peace” and other work, he finds that open markets and liberal institutions reinforce relationships based on contract rather than identity, and promote trust among strangers. By contrast, institutions which push back against liberalism and open markets reinforce a culture of hierarchies, tribalism, and limited circles of trust. Importantly,  the role of formal institutions is supplemented by informal norms and beliefs. As Deirdre McCloskey has argued in her “Bourgeois Trilogy”, liberal institutions and economic growth are heavily dependent on cultural norms about tolerance, respect for the dignity of others, and appreciation for the value provided by the entrepreneurship of ordinary people, rather than inherited titles or political and military leadership. Such beliefs and norms reinforce the idea that social interactions are not a zero-sum game, but can actually have mutually beneficial results. 

By contrast, Israel is inundated with an extensive bureaucracy with little accountability, and extensive protections on behalf of special interests. In addition, corrupt public sector unions have a damaging effect on many services. While Israel’s hi-tech sector is world renowned, this dynamism does not extend to the rest of the economy.  A small number of families control large swathes of Israeli industry. These oligopolists benefit from both external tariffs and import requirements, as well extensive domestic regulations that limit market entry and innovation. The Israeli government prioritizes major exporters and large, well-connected firms at the expense of consumers, importers, and smaller businesses. 

In addition, a complex maze of local, regional, and federal authorities and regulatory requirements make starting a new business, developing property, or building infrastructure tremendously costly and difficult for ordinary people. This is worsened by the fact that the state owns some 93% of all land in the country (excluding the occupied territories) and all property is technically leased from it. In addition to underdevelopment and corruption, this has also enabled significant racial and religious discrimination. Despite political declarations, and the 2015 appointment of former finance minister Moshe Kahlon (who successfully led telecom deregulation as an MK) to deal with land and housing, little progress has been made. 

Overall, this state of affairs actively hurts trust and cooperation among the population. Corruption and bureaucratic entrenchment actively creates significant harms to socio-economic wellbeing. It is thus unsurprising that trust falls severely among the Israeli public for institutions other than the IDF and the office of the President, followed by the Supreme Court. More broadly, 58% of Israelis see leadership as corrupt. The relative weakness of liberal institutions, whether cultural, economic, or political, also explain why Israel scores far lower in both economic and civil liberties than many other developed democracies, including those which favour a large economic role for the state. While more liberal and democratic than many regional neighbours, Israel is significantly behind many other developed democracies. It also explains why Israel is ranked 35th in corruption out of 180 countries globally, and 24th out of 36 OECD nations.

The dearth of alternative institutions, both formal and informal, has had serious consequences. Ironically, the Israeli emphasis on collective identity is deeply contrary to advancing the project of widespread trust and civic cooperation. The centrality of allying with group interests and  obeying group authorities, coupled with the fear of being screwed over means that those who are not in my group are seen as potentially hostile to my interests. This is a major problem for Israeli society, which is coloured by a number of major social rifts. The presence of significant diversity, which includes not only Jews and non-Jews, but a wide variety of Jews of different geographical and racial backgrounds and approaches to Judaism, requires inclusive, anti-tribal norms that promote intergroup cooperation. 

However, since such norms are relatively weak, it is extremely hard for social or political coalitions to maintain themselves. These social cleavages have resulted in racism towards Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews as well as non-Jewish Arab-Israelis, and unequal treatment for non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. Political divisions have also grown worse, with deep breaks between right and left now significantly outpacing ethnic and religious differences. These cleavages are also reflected in enmity towards the Ultra-Orthodox, or “Haredim”, for getting exemption from military service for Torah study. Notably, this resentment is reflective of a belief in the need for all Israelis to be made to sacrifice for the state. Anger towards the Haredi population is thus a combination of a strange cognitive dissonance – Haredim are disliked for their avoidance of nationalist commitments as well as because they invite feelings of having become a sucker for serving. This state of affairs has also encouraged the imprisonment of and racist attacks on non-Jewish African refugees, culminating in attempted deportations to violent dictatorships and war zones. Troublingly, Israel has the lowest support for refugee acceptance of all “Western” nations, far behind European countries with greater numbers of migrants. 

These conditions make it extremely hard to challenge corruption and champion cooperation. As stated earlier, many Israelis expect corruption as an institutional and social feature, even if they recognize it as a systemic bug. Worries are often focused on the success of those deemed to be opponents, rather than adherence to procedure and the rule of law. As a result, corruption is extremely common in Israeli politics. Politicians such as the former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, former President Moshe Katsav, current Interior Minister and Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri, former Defence Minister and leader of Yisrael Beiteinu Avigdor Leiberman, and many others have been indicted in corruption charges, with some serving significant prison time. In most cases, this has not damaged their career advancement.

To make matters worse, many Israelis identify strongman politics with good leadership. Approaching politics in a populist, “get things done” manner on behalf of ‘’the people”, rather than one with an emphasis on rule of law, respect for procedure, and checks and balances carries significant cultural cache. This doesn’t automatically ensure the success of populist strategies, but they are a prominent component of the landscape. This is illustrated by the total absence of electoral debates and serious public discussion of alternatives.

Rather, each election cycle finds the country inundated with jingoistic ads and billboards using simple slogans, such as “Bibi. Strong in Trust. Strong in Defence.” and “The Nation of Israel Lives.”

Party names also reflect this trend, from the former branding of the 2015 Labor Party-Hatnuah joint list as the “Zionist Union”, to current parties like Benny Gantz’ “Blue and White” and the newly minted “The Israelis”, led by former Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai. Overall, political rhetoric across the spectrum is heavily focused on who will best reflect ideas of strength, national pride, and gaining benefits for some constituencies at the expense of others . In this regard, Israel is perhaps a worrying window into the trajectory of many populist-trending higher income democracies, a trend exemplified by Netanyahu’s administrations. 

Strongman politics is also reinforced by the regular entry of generals and people from the military establishment, and one’s military record is a significant factor in garnering both social and economic advancement as well as political clout. This comes at the detriment of a healthy balance between civilian and military affairs, in which military concerns often overshadow other needs, and in which policy making is seen in militaristic terms, focused on manifesting power and winning “battles”, rather than finding alternative solutions. 

Current elections and future prospects

All of these elements make it extremely unsurprising that even despite several rounds of elections, a Likud Party led by a man with multiple, significant corruption charges has continued to win large numbers of seats. Further, neither Netanyahu’s charges, nor the instability of each administration over the past few years have yet made voters feel that real change is required. Neither has Netanyahu’s increasingly desperate, bombastic rhetoric, labelling the charges against him a “witch hunt” and an “attempted coup”, and a failed attempt at legal immunity. Voter loyalty to Netanyahu does not appear to be a matter of ideological preferences. Despite many similar alternatives, a majority of Israelis continue to see Netanyahu as the candidate best reflecting “strong” leadership. In this regard, Netanyahu’s continued success is as much a reflection of his charisma and ability to channel strength and power as it is his mischaracterization of his opponents as “left-wingers” who will concede to terrorism and endanger the country. 

Netanyahu’s negative rhetoric plays both into fears about terrorism and security aswell as racism and xenophobia. This is well-illustrated by Likud ads pairing Benny Gantz of Blue and White with Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List, which advocates for the rights of Arab-Israelis, and represents a range of perspectives on the Palestinian question. These attacks are belied by the fact that many of the challengers, both past and current, are politically similar or indistinguishable both from him and from each other. Many Netanyahu challengers are ex-Likudniks or other rightwingers, and high-ranking military including army generals, from Gantz, to New Hope’s Gidon Sa’ar, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon of Yesh Atid-Telem, and Naftali Bennett of Yamina. 

At the time of this writing, voter dissatisfaction with Netanyahu and government instability appear to have risen. However, the ultimate outcome remains uncertain. Likud and New Hope are currently neck-and-neck, but neither have strong projections to be coalitional kingmakers, though Likud remains slightly ahead. Gantz’ Blue and White, once seen as the main alternative, has cratered in the polls in the wake of his failure to remove Bibi in the last round. However as David Horovitz has argued, regardless of the winner, the coming elections will deliver a rightwing government, and rightwing administrations are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The continued success of nationalist parties and the predominance of right wing voters owe a significant debt to the breakdown of the peace process and a decline in public confidence about peace and a two-state solution, as well as the presence of nationalism more broadly. 

The lack of resolution to the conflict has led to an outsized focus on defence policy, and favouritism for a hawkish approach over a dovish one, coupled with the de-prioritization of domestic issues and concerns. It has enabled an environment in which rhetoric about the endangerment of the nation by external forces, support for continued territorial expansion, and contestation over who has true national loyalties dominate the discourse. Overall, the mainstream of current political discourse is highly nationalist, and even racist. 

The rightward voter shift has also been bolstered by the immigration and growth of Jewish communities from the former Soviet Union and from France, as well as the Middle East and North Africa (or MENA). These communities share stronger preferences for hierarchy, collective identity, and the projection of power than the Israeli public as a whole, and often greater suspicion of and enmity towards Arabs and Muslims (for reasons of past discrimination and conflict aswell as identity). In the case of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews (originating from MENA countries as well as from France), traditionalism and greater religiosity also play a role. 

Overall, there has been a severe decline in support for political diversity, especially for leftwing parties. In the last round of elections, Labor-Gesher shrunk to only 6 seats out of 120, a paltry number for a party once in the majority for many decades, while Meretz gained all of 5 as part of the “Democratic Union” coalition. Regardless of ideology or affiliation, this is not a healthy balance of power or of approaches to governance. Democratic checks and balances rely as much on factional and ideological balances as they do on rule of law and due process. 

Beyond left and right, the legacy of collectivist and authoritarian norms and institutions continues to feed a steady diet of empty slogans, normalized corruption, populism, tribalism, and mutual mistrust. These pose serious threats to the future of Israeli democracy. Neither can these problems be easily resolved. Radical reform in civil society, government, and the economy are needed. Little will change without them. If progress is to be made, the status quo must not be accepted, but transcended. Israel is a remarkable country. It has made tremendous progress in arts and science, in economic growth, and in sustaining a liberal democracy (however flawed) in a politically volatile region. But the problems Israel faces aren’t going away. It’s time to cultivate liberalism.

Featured image is Election Posters in Israel, by Rakoon