The much-anticipated and highly-divisive Israeli elections have come and gone, and I’d like to offer some reflections on what the elections mean about the nature of Israeli democracy.
The structure and integrity of the Israeli electoral system means that the outcome accurately represented the will of the people, proving beyond any doubt that a plurality of Israeli citizens would rather be ruled by the right than the left.
The Likud won fair and square. Netanyahu used racist language to get out the vote, but there was no ballot tampering, let alone intimidation at the voting stations. Had the electorate decided otherwise, the Zionist Union would be forming the government, and Netanyahu would have handed over the keys to the Prime Minister’s residence. Netanyahu may be a demagogue but he is not a dictator. Israel is still a democracy in which elected representatives serve with the consent of the people. All citizens have the same political rights, although the Jewish majority enjoys social privileges that the Arab minority does not.
As a stable democracy, Israel remains qualitatively different from its Arab neighbours. Arab states have a long tradition of serving narrow elites and being disconnected from the populace except as providers of public employment. Ordinary Arabs, even in putative democracies, have felt little connection with the state apparatus. The Arab uprisings strove to tear the old system down, and many Arabs wanted to install genuine democracies in its place. For the most part, the uprisings failed, with authoritarianism back in place in Egypt and chaos in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Arabs are bitterly angry and frustrated about their condition, yet because of the anti-democratic, non-inclusive tradition of politics in Arab states, they have not felt personally responsible for their states’ crimes. Yet Arabs commonly blame Israelis for everything their state does. This behaviour is in part irrational and even anti-Semitic, but it is also justified to the extent that in Israel the government is accountable to the electorate. In the Arab world, the only way to change things is to go out into the street and protest, thereby risking jail or death, or to take up arms (and, of course, face an even greater risk of jail or death).
In Israel, people vote governments in and out power. There has never been a coup or civil war. New governments do not carry out reprisals against the former government’s members and their friends and families. Israelis and their supporters throughout the world can take justifiable pride in their country’s steadfast attachment to democratic government. They should also realise that if governments are accountable to the people, the people are accountable for the governments they elect.