Israel in 2030, Liberal Democracy, Populistic or Autocracy? ‘Round Table’ Discussion

Cite As:
Adres Eitan, Gal Reuven, Salzberger Eli, Maital Shlomo, Erev Ido, Katz Shacham Oshrat. Israel in 2030, Liberal Democracy, Populistic or Autocracy? ‘Round Table’ Discussion Haifa Israel: Samuel Neaman Institute, 2024.

The Economy and Society Forum, ‘Round Table’ Discussion, February 29th, 2024.

The round table discussion took place as part of the Economy and Society Forum at Neaman Institute. It focused on democracy in Israel as the cornerstone of any discussion in the realm of economy and society.

For several years now, Israeli society has experienced instability and growing divisions, reflected in being dragged into five election campaigns over the course of three and a half years; and in democratic deterioration and public protest, on an unprecedented scale, from the beginning of 2023. Some claim that this situation even encouraged Hamas to initiate the October 7 massacre and thus lead to a war that is still ongoing and may intensify in the North as well.

In the international arena, for some 20 years we have been witnessing the erosion of liberal democracy. In a growing number of countries, we are observing the process of tending towards a populist regime which in many cases leads to electoral autocracy and even full autocracy. The attempt at the beginning of 2023 to bring about a coup d'état, called a ‘legal reform’ by its initiators, provoked, as mentioned, a powerful civil protest movement. With the outbreak of the Gaza War on October 7, 2023, the controversy took on unprecedented dimensions and meaning, unique in the entire history of the State of Israel:

  • The amazing mobilization of the reservists for the war; and
  • The civil society movement that transformed the protest into full commitment to the civil society effort;
  • All this, while demonstrating complete unity, on the one hand, alongside concerns about the future of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence with the end of the conflict, on the other hand.

In The Economist's Democracy Index for 2023, the State of Israel is classified as a flawed democracy, (ranked 30th in the world. In the component of governmental functioning, Israel scored 7.50 (out of 10). This is compared to Sweden and Finland (9.64), Netherlands (8.93), Germany (8.17), and France (7.86).

The Civil Liberties component is particularly interesting; Israel received 5.59 (out of 10), even lower than Poland (7.35) Hungary (6.76) and the Netherlands (9.41).

According to the 2024 Democracy Report of the V-Dem Institute, an important indicator for measuring democratic strength , Israel lost its position in 2023 as a leading liberal democracy. Today it is classified as an electoral democracy, similar to Poland and South Africa. The continuation of the current process may lead to a classification as an electoral autocracy like Hungary and Russia.

In view of the lack of clarity in the political picture, we decided to hold a round table discussion dealing with the democratic nature of the State of Israel in 2030 - a future date, admittedly, but one which is on the relatively near horizon. We asked: Will democracy in Israel, in the coming decade, be liberal, or populist on the way to autocracy?

Populism, which is an important factor in this process, was at the center of the discussion. Populism is a controversial concept that is often conflated with concepts such as: nationalism, ethnicity, authoritarianism and sometimes also distinguishing between good and bad for the state. Populism is often expressed as opposition to the elites, with deep resentment and delegitimization of political opponents and public servants, sometimes to the point of accusing them of treason, and excluding them from the legitimate group that is "the people", who alone are worthy of making political decisions. This governing practice, usually led by a strong leader, usually with narcissistic personality traits, creates illogical political and economic coalitions. Such coalitions promote the populists' grip on power to become very strong.

According to some researchers, damage to liberal democracy is part of the basic definition of populism. This is due to the elimination of restraints on the implementation of the political will of the majority, as led by the strong leader, through the weakening of the various gatekeepers, the reduction of the separation between the authorities and in fact the violation of the system of checks and balances that characterizes liberal democracy. The populist shifts will be taken, usually, within the limits of democratic legitimacy while stretching them to the limit, an action that creates difficulty in reversing them.

To try and clarify these issues, we decided to hold a professional discussion at the S. Neaman Institute in a 'round table' format, titled: Israel in 2030, liberal democracy, populist democracy or autocracy?

In order to focus the discussion, we posed the following questions to the participants:

A. What are the possible tools for mitigating the negative effects of populism? (such as a constitution, election system, government structure, separation of authorities, two legislatures, strengthening of gatekeepers, decentralization of powers to the local government, etc.).
B. Are there ways to prevent the formation of a populist government?
C. Is there a way back from a populist regime to a liberal democracy?
D. Israel 2030: Is populism compatible with "Jewish and democratic"?

The discussion took place at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion, on February 29, 2024. Twenty-four participants with diverse backgrounds, specialties and occupations took part The participants gave short speeches and were asked to refer to the words of their predecessors as well. The main points appear in this report, maintaining the formulations as expressed in the discussion itself. There is no doubt that the issues raised in the discussion only touched the tip of the iceberg, but also point to additional issues that need to be explored in depth.

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