Democracy
in the Shadow
of Coronavirus

Fragile or Strengthened? The State of Israel’s Democracy the Day After

Has Israel’s democracy been weakened or fortified by the series of blows it has enduredin the past year? And could the just beginning deep economic crisis, alongside an inflated government, undermine its stability, leading to civil disobedience and a refusal to pay taxes? A special report

Photography: Bia Bar Klosh

Shahar Smooha

May 25, 2020

As soon as the coronavirus crisis erupted, Professor Meir Yaish and Dr. Tali Kristal from the University of Haifa’s Department of Sociology initiated a long־term study that will try to estimate the impact of the virus on inequality in Israel. Their final conclusions are still far off, but the data that is already available shows that the hardest hit are women, young people, low־tech workers, and the low־paid in general.

Yaish describes the current situation in Israel: "When a child gets hit, it takes them a few seconds before they start crying. We are now in the same situation; we are in total shock. We are not yet seeing people selling their homes or cars in order to buy food or no longer being able to pay university tuition fees for their children. If big employers saw a large drop in their income, they won’t take back all of the workers they put on unpaid leave even after the restrictions are lifted. Just like the state released employers from their responsibility to their employees by allowing them to put their workers on unpaid leave, the state will, one day, release itself from its commitment to workers on unpaid leave who are not really entitled to receive unemployment benefits. After a few months, someone will declare that time is up or there will simply not be enough money to pay the workers on unpaid leave. I think that after some employees return to their workplace and others don’t, we will begin to witness some tough scenes."

How will the widening inequality affect the resilience of Israel’s democracy? Yaish: "We expect ramifications on positions and perceptions and that is why we also added such questions to the study. Some of the issues we will examine are political positions, the extent of trust in the state and its institutions, and the strengthening or weakening of liberal viewpoints. We will see if all these issues are really expressed among the respondents to our survey. We are not yet seeing the recovery process in which the relativism of our situation will play a role. If I were one of the 900,000 people put on unpaid leave and am beginning to see more and more people returning to work when I have not been brought back to work, then I would be a lot more frustrated than if no one had been brought back. When the economy starts returning to normal and the distinction between who is brought back to work and who is not becomes apparent, then we will see some truly tragic responses. What does it say about a person who is not brought back to work? That they are not good enough? That they are not really needed? This is no longer just an economic crisis; it is also a personal crisis. An all־time low. I don’t think we have even begun the real crisis, and when we do, we will see build־up of frustration. When people see that they can’t maintain the lifestyle they were accustomed to or the minimum standards of that lifestyle, their frustration will increase. I am not optimistic."

Professor Meir Yaish: "Some of the issues we will examine are political positions, the extent of trust in the state and its institutions, and the strengthening or weakening of liberal viewpoints. We will see if all these issues are really expressed among the respondents."

Will this necessarily undermine the public’s trust in the government?

"Absolutely. In Israel we expect to receive a complete safety net and yet not pay taxes." Yaish smiles, "But this still does not change the fact that the public expects to receive a safety net from the state and, at some point, the state will either decide to stop providing it or will no longer be able to provide it and then trouble will start. Our study is for two years. We are not expecting to see anything interesting right now; the slap in the face we received is the boring stage."

"I think that Netanyahu also understands this, and I think this is why he gave in to pressure groups. I believe that he is still carrying the trauma of the social justice protests of 2011. However, the protesters at that time were the spoiled middle classes and higher who held well־paying jobs but couldn’t afford to buy apartments in Tel Aviv. They weren’t protesters who couldn’t afford to put bread on the table, but people who work hard but don’t have the same lifestyle as their friends who have relocated to other places in the world. The next wave of protesters will be hungry people, and I believe that this protest will take place unless Netanyahu has learned his lesson and deals with it. But this requires spending a lot of money, and money is a limited commodity in Israel.

"Take a look at the sector that we now call "shulmanim" – the 300,000 self־employed people. A large percentage of these businesses have collapsed, and a tax revolt by them is not unthinkable. They feel that the state has betrayed them, and for them this feeling is completely justified. They feel that they are at the bottom of the food chain, that they have contributed their part – both in employing workers and in paying taxes – but when they needed the state, it wasn’t there for them. I therefore estimate that we will see many more of these businesses not declaring their income and not paying taxes."

What does this say about our government?

"Public support is always necessary, even if you don’t live in a democracy. Even in a dictatorship, you can’t do everything without support. Toward the end of World War Two, Hitler tried to send Jewish men who were married to German women to concentration camps. But these women wouldn’t hear of it and protested in Berlin, and Hitler was forced to withdraw his plans. Why am I telling you this? Because it shows that you need social cohesion everywhere. I don’t think our social cohesion was in good shape at the start of the coronavirusvirus crisis, but now the situation is really bad."

"Taking the content out of the whole idea"

In contrast to what most Israelis like to say about themselves, Israel has never had a very impressive ranking on the spectrum of democracies in the world. Although Israeli leaders like to boast that it is "the only democracy in the Middle East," this ironically places Israel at the head of a pack of foxes and subdues where it really stands, namely, at the tail of a lion.

The research unit of The Economist in the UK publishes an annual Democracy Index. Although Israel went up two places in 2019 from the previous year, it is still ranked far from the top of the index in 28th place – between Estonia and Botswana. The top ranked countries are Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, and the UK, and we should be striving to emulate them.

A closer look at the index shows that although Israel has a high ranking in parameters that measure the quality of democracy, such as levels of pluralism and percentage of participation in the democratic process, when it comes to civil rights, Israel plummets to a score of 5.88, ranking it alongside countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Armenia, Georgia, and Uganda.

Another index is the Fragile States Index, published by the Fund for Peace and the US magazine Foreign Policy. In 2019, Israel was ranked 112 out of 178 countries in this index. This is a very worrying ranking in an index that examines the damage done to a country from conflicts that could lead to the collapse of the regime such as security threats, delegitimization of the country, and human rights violations. In this index, Israel is ranked alongside Russia, India, Jordan, Senegal, and Honduras.

Dr. Doron Navot: "What's happening in Israel is that the institutional arrangements that are indispensable to running a society exist, formally, on paper, but in practice they are being filled with content that actually deprives them of their meaning. For example, elections are not rigged in Israel, but something more interesting is done: the law is observed in the formal sense, but its meaning is altered."

And then the coronavirusvirus crisis erupted. Opinions are divided on the question of whether the health, economic, and social crisis caused by the virus – which led to the formation of a government after a difficult year of allegations and campaigns waged against Israel’s Arab citizens, against the media, and against the gatekeepers of law enforcement – will change this pattern and move Israel’s democracy onto a path that will enable it to recover. Or, alternatively, will the political cooperation between the Likud and Blue and White parties actually make matters worse?

Dr. Doron Navot from the University of Haifa’s Faculty of Social Sciences explains: "The democratic procedures embody the principle of public sovereignty which boils down to the idea that the public has the power and it is the public that decides. In addition, there is the liberal aspect connected to rights and values and protecting the individual. This aspect is often expressed in the checks and balances that keep tabs on sovereignty in order to defend rights and guard democracy over time. Unrestrained sovereignty eats away at its very being, rather like a drug addict; a person who is addicted cannot be called free."

"If we look at Israel’s democracy from this perspective, we can see that in recent years damage has been inflicted on those institutions that defend liberal values – the media, courts, law enforcement agencies, and other mechanisms whose job is not to promote sovereignty but other values."

"Since the onset of the coronavirusvirus crisis, several other events have taken place: a direct attack on the rights of the individual. For example, the GSS began surveilling citizens – while this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is, nevertheless, dangerous. The limitations on freedom were not necessarily imposed against public will, but they still limit the individual’s freedom." (See Shomrim’s video report to learn more.)

"The virus was used for cynical political purposes to harm the democratic procedures (for example, former Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to convene the plenum despite a Supreme Court ruling). What is happening in Israel today is that the institutional arrangements that are indispensable to society exist, formally, on paper, but in practice they are being filled with content that actually deprives them of their meaning."

How do they do this?

"For example, elections are not rigged in Israel, but something more interesting is done: the law is observed in the formal sense, but its accepted meaning is taken and simply altered. This is one of Netanyahu’s most important projects. And that is how we reach a situation in which the Supreme Court rules that Netanyahu can form a coalition government. The law states that an accused person is legally permitted to form a coalition, and the courts are obliged to make a ruling based on the law. However, every law is based on a consensus. The written law has no standing if you and I do not agree that it covers a certain range of meanings. If we arrange to speak on the phone at 9:00, we can speak at 9:01 or at 9:15, but you cannot call me at 12:00 and say that it is roughly 9:00."

"We also see this in the current political appointments. The official, formal process is, of course, adhered to, but the appointees are not suited to their positions. The prime minister is formally allowed to appoint Yoav Gallant as education minister, even though it is clear to all that he is not from the field of education. Netanyahu is allowed to decide that ministers change their position every 18 months, even though this undermines ministerial logic. Nowhere is it written that this is forbidden, and he has not broken any law. Nevertheless, it takes content out of the very idea."

"The same can be seen in the refusal to offer certain Knesset committees to the opposition, as is the norm. An appeal to the courts was made about this decision . This was ridiculous, in my opinion, as a norm is not something that should be forced on someone through legal means. Netanyahu’s opponents are focusing their battles on the legal sphere, but they don’t understand that Netanyahu does not usually violate the law; he just manipulates it. The significance of his actions is that they destroy democracies because the various parties get used to the idea that working together is not possible. People are always on the alert and suspicious, feeling they cannot rely on anyone. People come to understand that power and strength alone determine what happens. And this all destroys the foundations of democracy, because the basis of this form of government is the desire to live together in a fair manner."

Navot believes that the sorry state of Israel’s democracy is causing an unprecedented number of people to talk about disobeying the law or even tax resistance. While at the beginning of the crisis, protests such as "I am Shulman" led by the self־employed were considered on the sidelines, the voices calling for civil disobedience have only increased and are coming close to the mainstream. One example is Tel Aviv’s mayor Ron Huldai’s provocative announcement that fines would not be issued to those breaking the law by going to the beach or to the restaurants and bars that opened up for business last week against the health ministry’s regulations.

Navot continues: "What leads to tax resistance is the understanding that public interest is pretty much at the bottom of the politicians’ list of considerations. At such a point, any normal person says to themself: ‘Enough! I will no longer continue contributing to the public so that the state can just eat me alive. I have to look after myself. I have no other choice.’ On the one hand, it’s wrong not to pay taxes and it should not be applauded, but under certain circumstances, it’s the best thing to do to make sure that the state begins to take care of its citizens and not just of itself."

Democracy has proved its resilience

Professor Yoav Dotan, who heads the Hebrew University’s Public Law Forum, does not share the view that the coronavirusvirus virus and its ramifications have led to a decline in the quality of Israel’s democracy. "I don’t think that the events of the past few months show a downturn in our democracy. I think that the democratic mechanisms operated more or less as expected given the restrictions, and I believe they showed a certain resilience."

According to Dotan, "It is okay to look at the situation from the perspective of a violation of our rights. I wouldn’t expect anything else from an organization like the Association for Civil Rights. However, I take a wider perspective when looking at the decisions made by public institutions in general and during the coronavirus crisis in particular. I believe we have to judge the government according to its level of performance, and during this crisis the expectation was that the state would protect us. Every country reacts to this kind of crisis in the way and means it knows and finds naturally. For example, the Scandinavians know that the public have a high level of trust in the authorities and that they readily obey regulations. Thus, the Swedes felt they could tell the public to be alert and to practice social distancing while not shutting down the economy. Israel could not have allowed for such a policy; had we tried to do so, we would have ended up like Spain."

Professor Yoav Dotan: "It is OK to observe the situation from the viewpoint of a violation of our rights. However, when observing the decisions of public institutions in general, and during the coronavirusvirus period in particular, I take a wider perspective. I believe we have to judge the government according to its performance level, and during this crisis the expectation was that the state would protect us."

"On the one hand, we have very low level public sector services and our Ministry of Health is not exactly the most efficient and sophisticated body. On the other hand, our defense establishment is the exact opposite: a very rich, efficient, and skilled body. Although there is not too much civilian supervision of the defense establishment, it is exactly what we need in times of crisis like the coronavirus virus which required an efficient, coordinated, speedy, and creative response. In my opinion, we did not fully exploit the defense ministry’s capabilities."

Dotan believes that the decision to allow the GSS to track citizens’ movements during the coronavirus crisis was not taken lightly. "Such moves have certain ramifications for personal freedom, but I think that our mechanisms for supervising the GSS are not insignificant. When the government passed the emergency regulations, it first had to first go through the attorney general, and he made sure to add significant checks These included deciding that in order to continue surveillance, a Knesset committee would have to give its approval – even though at the time such committee did not even exist. It was only set up later, and the general consensus is that the committee did an excellent job, not typically seen in the Knesset. In other words, during the crisis we had the chance to see the checks on these security measures."

"On the one hand, our defense establishment has a lot of power. On the other hand, the courts in Israel have supervisory powers that don’t exist in other countries. We didn’t see anarchy or a dictatorship. The State of Israel acted in accordance with its regular protocols: widespread use of the security forces with very intense supervision by the legal system. This is what we got. If you ask me if I can’t sleep at night because of this situation, I will answer that I sleep well. I have other, more serious worries."

I then asked Dotan for his opinion on former Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s executive order to freeze the courts’ sessions just two days before the start of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trial. Dotan does not attach too much importance to this step. "I don’t claim that that in a crisis of this magnitude, there won’t be some people who try to take advantage of it for all sorts of purposes – and our political system is no different – but the whole world went into lockdown not just Israel. This has never happened in the history of the world. 8.5 billion people came to a sudden, screeching halt. The legal system froze all its court sessions including Bibi’s trial. I think that one would have to be slightly paranoid to claim that the entire coronavirus crisis came about just to postpone Bibi’s trial by two months."

Dotan is less forgiving about former Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s attempt to prevent the plenum convening by claiming that during the coronavirus crisis there is a need for wide consensus between the rival political camps. "The Supreme Court was correct to intervene in Edelstein’s actions. In my opinion, what Edelstein did justified judicial intervention for the reason that one of the classic cases in which the courts have to intervene in democratic processes is what is known as ‘locking the channels of political change,’ in other words, when the ruling party tries to prevent the chances of democratic change. The courts are not supposed to intervene in the results of the democratic process but are supposed to ensure that the process takes place according to the rules. When a majority of MKs want to choose a new speaker, the incumbent speaker cannot take advantage of his powers to prevent his replacement from being elected.

"The public is at peace with the situation"

So has Israel’s democracy been weakened or fortified by the series of blows it has received in the past year? Dr. Meir Elran of the Institute for National Security Studies replies: "Resilience is not strength in the conventional sense of the word, but rather it is a country’s ability to recover from a blow. What we are seeing now in Israel is that the coronavirus virus is causing a very severe blow because the health crisis created a very serious crisis in the economic and social spheres and in people’s consciousness. This, on top of a political crisis, dramatically reduced the ability to function. The main question we are dealing with now is when will we recover, at what pace, and where will it lead us: back to where we started or to a lower or higher point?"

Dr. Meir Elran: "I think that Israelis’ compliance probably contributed to the low mortality rate from coronavirus that we saw in the country. On the other hand, the public did not protest in the face of worrying moves. Some members of the public even called for the crisis to be managed by the IDF. I was very perturbed by these calls, but it would be difficult to claim that the resilience of Israel’s democracy is on the decline."

"I believe that so far, since no one really knows anything about the coronavirusvirus and its ramifications, the public are quite happy to rely on the prime minister’s seemingly clear and unequivocal statements. It seems to give them the feeling that we are in a good position. We are told that the health situation in Israel is a huge triumph when compared to Italy, Spain, and the UK. However, no one mentions that in the Arab countries surrounding Israel, there has hardly been any deaths from coronavirus. So, if the public is living in peace with this situation, you tell me whether this is good or bad for democracy."

Like Navot, Elran too believes that Israel’s democracy is alive and kicking if one considers its representative aspects. With regard to its more substantive dimensions, he agrees that the situation is complex. "Resilience is normally measured by performance, and here, we are in a good situation. People are once again allowed out on the streets and we maintained our resilience. If you ask me about the values of democracy, then I think that the media, the government, and the Israeli public are almost playing with fire in its exploitation of the socioeconomic crisis we are undergoing."

"Take obedience, for example. We were given a whole set of regulations and the vast majority of the Israeli public, more than 80%, complied with them. What does this tell us? That we are a strong, cohesive society that works methodically and trusts its government? Or maybe something less good? I am one of those who think that, on the one hand, it is okay, and on the other hand, it is worrying. I believe that the obedience of the Israeli public probably contributed to the low mortality rates in Israel. But, on the other hand, the public did not protest about the disturbing measures taken. Some members of the public even called for the crisis to be managed by the IDF. I was very perturbed by these calls, but it would be difficult to state that the resilience of Israel’s democracy is on the decline."

"The polls I have read over the past six weeks show that the public’s trust in the government and the local authorities has not dropped. Even the Arab sector trusts the government and the local authorities – even more so than the Jewish sector. I see a reasonable level of resilience. At this point, I cannot see any signs of civil disobedience; rather, I see people in various sectors who are under pressure and are very stressed. The weakened sectors are encroaching on the middle class, which is a very worrying trend. However, I think that people are now waiting to see how they can live with this situation and these other symptoms are just on the sidelines. When more than two thirds of the public express their trust in the government, this is much higher than what we have seen in the past. What does this tell us? Are we or are we not resilient? I think it’s too early to tell.”