Fortifying Our Democracies

An analysis by Yohanan Plesner, president of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute.

The attack by a near-dictatorship on the fledgling democracy in Ukraine has sent chills up the collective spines of all citizens of the free world. Freedom is under assault once again. At the same time, it bears mentioning that the backsliding of Russia from emerging democracy in the mid-1990s to personalist autocracy today is what has made this aggression possible, and perhaps inevitable, in the first place. In other words, the war in Ukraine is a stark reminder both of the vulnerability of democracy and the close link between authoritarianism and war.

While stopping the horrific bloodshed must be the first priority for the free world, a close second is the shoring up of our democratic institutions. For if Russia’s war on Ukraine demonstrates anything, it is that democracy is under assault from external and internal enemies alike. Democratic government should never be taken for granted and must be actively defended. If democracies are to withstand these twin assaults, they must be ready not only to defend themselves against foreign aggression but to bolster the institutions that guarantee freedom while demonstrating to their citizens that democratic government is vastly better than the alternative.
Israel, as a tiny democracy surrounded by a sea of autocracy, has an intuitive understanding of the external threat that Ukraine is facing today. During our almost 74 years of independence, the Jewish state has received countless reminders that while the pursuit of peace is noble and worthy, a robust military – and the willingness to use it in defense of freedom – is essential. This is why, notwithstanding the understandable desire to shift resources to the social welfare and economic wellbeing of our people, Israelis must still dedicate significant years of their lives to mandatory military service, while our government must still spend more than 5 percent of our GDP on defense. Many NATO members who had hoped that such policies were no longer necessary after the fall of the Iron Curtain, are now quickly reassessing their national priorities and recommitting to their defenses.

So far, Israel’s young democracy has thankfully managed to preserve as a free society while facing a near-constant existential threat from abroad. While we are of course not perfect, as our continuing conflict with the Palestinians illustrates, Israelis remain a free people and continue to live under the rule of law. Our democracy continues to evolve and grow. At the same time, the acute political crisis that convulsed Israel over the past few years has served as a reminder of the dangers to our way of life that lurk within. An illiberal surge fueled by a populist leader weakened the very foundations of our democratic system, contributing to a sharp decline in trust in the government’s institutions and a bitter partisan divide.

The weakness of our institutions was on display when four elections in a row ended inconclusively. Compounding this failure of our electoral system was the unprecedented reality of a sitting prime minister, indicted on corruption charges, who brushed off all precedent and refused to relinquish his office. In normal times, these two constitutional crises would have been bad enough. The fact that they took place during a deadly global pandemic that handed emergency powers to the executive and sent public trust plummeting was potentially devastating.

While a new government is now finally in place, the aftershocks of these jolts to our democratic system are still very visible in Israeli public life. It remains unclear if the storm that battered Israeli democracy has passed, or whether we are merely experiencing a lull that may soon return in full force. The good news is that this period has taught us three important lessons that are relevant for all democracies undergoing an internal stress test.

First, institutions must be strengthened. For Israel, this means safeguarding the independence of our judicial system while shoring up the “rules of the game” that govern the interactions between the three branches of government. As a country without a constitution, and with very weak checks and balances between our parliament and the executive branch, the role the Supreme Court plays in protecting individual rights and ensuring a level playing field for all Israelis cannot be overstated.

If Israeli courts are to continue their role as the guardians of our democracy, the Knesset must strengthen the separation of powers by passing a Basic Law on Legislation that would finally make clear when and how each branch of government can step into the space of the other two. Such reforms are already being worked on by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar via public committees that are engaged in dialogue with different segments of the population. At the end of the day, such legislation should present the Israeli public with a clearer roadmap for what types of law can be overturned by the courts, how the parliament should provide better oversight over the cabinet, and, in general, how their democracy should work.

A second lesson we have learned is that social media platforms and online forums cannot be allowed to operate as if it were the Wild West. While freedom of speech must remain sacrosanct, this does not mean that social media companies can be used as digital platforms for screaming “fire” in a virtual crowded theater, nor can they become the ultimate arbiters of what free speech is. We have all witnessed the results of such digital anarchy, whether at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, or on the streets of Israel’s mixed cities during the riots of May 2021.

Democracies must tread lightly when regulating online platforms, but by convening policymakers, executives from the various social media companies, and creative thinkers from the academic and nonprofit sectors, policies can be implemented that strike a balance between protecting free speech and preventing incitement to violence.

Finally, if democracies are going to compete with the world’s autocratic regimes, we must prove that our systems work. For Israel, this starts with reforming our electoral mechanism so that it both represents the will of the nation and also ensures a stable government that is capable of getting the people’s work done. There are several ways this can be done, including creating a system where the head of the largest party in the Knesset is automatically the prime minster and introducing an element of regional representation into Israel’s electoral system.

Concurrently, we need to make sure that our economies work in the 21st century. Israeli “startup nation” has been a huge success, but it accounts for only 10 percent of our workforce, and the rest of the economy is playing catchup. Covid has underscored the importance of innovation for democracies’ “old” economies as well. This means retraining our workers so they can compete in a changing world. It also means introducing more flexible work conditions, including remote capabilities and a dynamic work week that makes sense with today’s industries, and recalibrating our infrastructure and regulatory systems so that we may continue to thrive despite the challenge posed by climate change.

Putting all these plans into action may seem like a tall order, but it is being proven possible on a daily basis in Israel. While the current government survives by the narrowest of parliamentary majorities, the diverse parties that make up the coalition represent large swaths of the Israeli electorate who have decided to put ideological battles on hold while they dedicate themselves to pragmatic problem-solving. Impressively, some are also working to solidify the foundations of Israeli democracy, which the crisis revealed to have been shakier than many thought. There is still much to be done, of course. But perhaps now, as Russia’s aggression recalibrates priorities across the democratic world, Israel can serve as an example of how to step back from the populist precipice and get democracy back on track.