Israel often and rightly defends itself as the only true democracy in the Middle East. Its commitment to free and fair elections, the civil liberties it extends to its citizens, and the smooth transfers of power that have marked its history attest that this is no idle boast. Even the dilemma at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — achieving peace without sacrificing security or undermining historical claims to the land — is at heart a dilemma based on Israel’s aspirations as a democracy.
Israelis have lately begun to complain that perhaps they suffer from too much democracy: Two close-together elections have failed to produce an actual government, and a third election in less than 12 months may be in the offing. The complex parliamentary system seems stymied by an inability of voters — and the parties who represent them — to make a clear statement as to the kind of leaders and policies they prefer. At the same time, the country’s attorney general just handed down an indictment of the sitting prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on various corruption charges. More than one Israeli pundit and politician has begun to refer to Israel’s democracy as “dysfunctional.”
But consider the alternatives: In other countries, protesters have taken to the streets against their unresponsive governments, convinced that there is no legal remedy to the corruption that plagues them. Strongmen have cancelled elections or rigged the legislatures and courts to tighten their own grips on power. Great Britain seems constitutionally unable to implement the will of its majority. Meanwhile, the public sector in Israel continues to run without a hitch, anxious but hardly paralyzed by the stalemate in parliament. The indictment of Netanyahu can even be seen as a sign of a healthy democracy, in that it demonstrates a system of checks and balances and insists that no one, not even the chief executive, is above the law.
Democracies are often more fragile than they appear, however. Netanyahu is playing with fire when he seeks to discredit both the attorney general and the media as mere political actors and describes his indictment as a potential “coup.” He and his supporters can’t have it both ways: declaring Israel the Middle East’s only democracy and then pronouncing its justice system inherently undemocratic. The courts are the venue for deciding his guilt and innocence, not the streets.
The Israel Democracy Institute has taken this one step further and declared that Netanyahu should step down and “focus on proving his innocence.” Whether or not Netanyahu or his fellow Israelis agree, the words of the IDI’s president, Yohanan Plesner, about the indictment should be heeded: “Criticizing this decision is of course legitimate, but it is vital that we recall that Israel is blessed with a legal system that enforces the law in a fair and equal manner on all of its citizens — the strong and weak alike. This is a source of immense pride for our country and should remain so.”