What’s Happening to Israel’s Democracy?

Law and governance expert Amichai Magen joins FSI Director Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast to discuss the judicial reforms recently passed by Israel’s legislature, and the implications these have for democracy in Israel and beyond.
Protestors wave flags as thousands of Israelis attend a rally against Israeli Government's judicial overhaul plan on March 27, 2023 in Jerusalem, Israel. Protestors wave flags as thousands of Israeli citizens attend a rally against the government's judicial overhaul plan in Jerusalem, Israel. Getty

Since the beginning of 2023, many citizens in Israel have taken part in a weekly ritual: street protests.

Most of the demonstrations are aimed at proposals from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration to reform aspects of Israel’s judicial system, including reducing certain powers held by the Supreme Court to check the power of Israel’s legislative body, the Knesset.

After months of sustained opposition, it appeared that the most controversial proposals would be dropped. In March, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a pause on the judicial overhaul plan, citing intentions to seek a compromise with dissenting members of the legislature. But in late July, a vote in the Knesset successfully passed a bill which removes the Supreme Court’s ability to invoke the “reasonableness clause,” or a legal tool by which the court can reject decisions or appointments made by the government if they fail to meet a standard of reasonable precedent and function.

This move has set off alarm bells both inside and outside of Israel. The only well-established, functioning democracy in the Middle East, many fear that the country may be heading toward a constitutional crisis.

To offer context on the current situation and its implication both for Israel and the broader geopolitical community, Amichai Magen, the inaugural Visiting Fellow in the Israel Visiting Fellows Program at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, joined Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast

In their conversation, Magen explains some of the cultural and political reasons that led Israel to this point, and offers his analysis of how Israel might move forward.

Listen to the full episode above, or browse highlights from their conversation below. Click here for a transcript of "Understanding Israel's Democracy."

The Paradox of Israeli Democracy

At the heart of the current crisis, says Magen, are unresolved tensions in Israel’s identity as a democratic nation. It has been a democracy since its recognition as an independent state in 1948, and in its 75 years as a nation, pulled off nothing less than a miracle of growth, development, and economic success. In 2022, it was the fastest growing country of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations and entered the top 20 ranking of countries with the highest GDP per capita. Outside of strictly economic statistics, it was also listed as the fourth happiest country on earth, falling in line behind Finland, Denmark and Iceland.

“This is a country that came from very inauspicious circumstances and has not only survived, but thrived as an open and pluralistic society,” Magen told McFaul. “If you and I looked at Israel this time last year, we would be in awe of this country.”

However, there have always been vulnerabilities brewing under the surface of this great success.

Israel has done pretty well by fudging those issues and focusing on mundane bread-and-butter political issues. But we find ourselves confronting a coalition government that today wants to take Israel down a different path.
Amichai Magen
Visiting Scholar

Israel notably lacks a formal, written constitution, and has long relied on what Magen references as “norms and mores” in order to keep the work of government in line with accepted precedent. He explains further:

“Israel has decided not to decide on some of the critical questions that are normally settled in constitutional conventions. We don't have formal rules on separation of church and state. We decided not to decide on whether the ultra-orthodox in Israel should serve in the army or not serve in the army. We decided not to decide what should be the relationship between the Jewish majority and the Arab Israeli minority that makes up 20% of the Israeli population.

“And Israel has done pretty well by fudging those issues, by not bringing them to the fore, and by essentially trying to focus on mundane bread-and-butter political issues. But we find ourselves confronting a coalition government that today wants to take Israel down a different path.” 

Learning from the Current Crisis

In the short-term, Magen does not see a short-term fix for the current situation as long as the Netanyahu government remains entrenched. Speaking about the situation in a recent BBC interview, he expressed his fears that the situation “has reached a point where Netanyahu's personal political fortunes are being put ahead of everything else in Israel."

But there are signs of what may lay ahead. Current polling in Israel shows that if national elections were held now, the Netanyahu administration would lose. And the ongoing protests , now nearly eight months long, show the commitment of the demonstrators.

Magen hopes that this current crisis will be a springboard for Israel to finally address some of the issues it has “decided not to decide.” While a singular, decisive constitutional convention would be satisfying, Magen imagines these changes will most likely come as a series of decisions over time.

“At the very least, we need to set in place the procedural rules of the game to make sure that we have stronger guardrails around how we’re going to conduct our national politics,” he explained.

Continuing, he said, “It might happen in one grand bargain, but I think more realistically, we will see a series of incremental changes of finer grained reforms that will try to put in place those guardrails. I think there's going to be quite a lot of pressure for Israelis to move in that direction, and that is the space to watch over the coming months and years.”

International Implications

Magen says another important lesson Israel’s current situation has to offer is a comparative lens for other democracies around the world suffering from similar polarization.

“This is not unique to Israel. We've seen something similar happening in places like Holland, Sweden, and Germany. There's something in the air that is driving mistrust and polarization and a collapse in public trust in elected authorities all around the world. And that is something we need to do a better job at understanding,” Magen emphasizes.

Just as authoritarians and populists have their international networks and circles, we really need to strengthen the circles and the networks of support for democracy all around the world.
Amichai Magen
Visiting Scholar in Israel Studies

The implications of Israel’s importance as a democratic cornerstone in the Middle East also shouldn’t be underestimated, says Magen.

“We've managed to make tremendous progress in Middle Eastern peace based on the understanding that Israel's neighbors have that Israel is a powerful, cohesive, and coherent international actor. If that is undermined, then we could find ourselves in a much more precarious regional and international environment with very serious consequences for energy markets and for stability in the Middle East and Europe and beyond,” he warns.

Magen explains that it is critical in this moment for the people of Israel to know that their efforts to protect and preserve democracy in their country is recognized by fellow democrats around the world.

“This is a time when the people of Israel — not only the Israeli government — really need to hear from their friends around the world, including, and I would say first and foremost, in the United States,” says Magen.

It’s a principle that’s applicable not only to the current situation in Israel, but to the global democratic community as a whole, he explains. 

“Just as authoritarians and populists have their international networks and circles, we really need to strengthen the circles and the networks of support for democracy all around the world, including for Israeli democracy,” Magen urges. “And we'd better do it earlier rather than later.”

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Larry Diamond, Or Rabinowitz, Yonatan Eyov, and Amichai Magen in discussion in the Bechtel Conference Center at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.

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