Election days are not only about choosing a government and representatives. They are also celebrations of democracy, as they should be. With five elections in three and a half years, Israelis would be forgiven for being weary of voting yet again, but not only did Israelis turn out to vote on Tuesday, they did so in higher numbers than every previous election in this cycle. The fact that Israel remains a country where leaders are elected and accountable to the country’s citizens, that avowedly non-Zionist parties and Knesset candidates are not barred from running, and that turnout for the fifth election in this current cycle was the highest since 2015 are all reasons for Israel to be proud of its democratic record. While many, including me, have been shouting from the rooftops about the dangerous rise of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir and their neo-Kahanist bigotry and illiberal pretensions, others have not incorrectly pointed to the fact that their influence and power are still dependent on free and fair voting. As President Isaac Herzog put it during an address to North American Jews this week, “The results may or may not be to your liking, but the vote of the Israeli people should be respected.”
Israelis should be proud of their democracy, since maintaining an unbroken chain of democratic elections from the state’s founding is nothing to sneeze at, particularly given the difficult track record for democratic elections in the Middle East. Yet celebrating Israel’s democracy based on elections is an incomplete exercise, as democracy is about more than elections. This was made stark by the actual results from Tuesday, when 10% of Israelis voted for a racist and ultra-nationalist party that has anti-democratic tendencies baked into its DNA. Amidst the deserved accolades for Israeli democracy, it is also important to generally keep in mind that every democracy—including Israel’s—has room for improvement, and that Israel specifically is facing issues that make it difficult to point to elections as the ultimate rejoinder to questions about the country’s direction.
The first issue is who is doing the voting. Israelis of all stripes turned out in greater numbers on Tuesday than they have during the first four elections in this cycle, including Israeli Arabs following their historically low turnout for the previous vote. Despite this, the giant elephant in the room is that there are approximately 2.8 million people living under Israeli control in the West Bank, including 300,000 under direct and complete Israeli rule in Area C, who do not get to vote. One of the great privileges of citizenship is exercising the right to vote, but when a situation in which people subject to the state’s authority do not have any say in who makes the decisions that govern their lives lasts for 55 years and counting, it cannot be enough to celebrate the millions who voted while ignoring the millions who cannot. There are defensible reasons for Israel perpetuating this situation, and the blame for it cannot be placed solely on Israel. But I also know of no definition of democracy that resembles “free and fair elections, except for millions of people who are not and never will be eligible for citizenship over security concerns.” Maybe Israel’s situation is unique, and maybe Israel is in an unwinnable situation that was thrust upon it, but it is woefully incomplete to praise successful Israeli elections without taking a moment to consider this large caveat and what it means for Israeli democracy.
The second issue is what happens after the vote. If a proudly illiberal government comes to power and institutes loyalty tests, strips people of citizenship and deports them under the vague standard of insufficient loyalty to the state, changes rules of engagement so that soldiers and police can legally shoot to kill minority suspects even when there is no reasonable threat to their lives, immunizes all parliamentarians from corruption charges while in office, and annexes territory without extending citizenship or any political and civil rights to people living there, should the exercise be celebrated as a triumph of democracy because the government was voted into power in free and fair elections? If you believe that democracy is about elections and elections only, then your answer to that question might be yes, but few people ascribe to that concept of majoritarian democracy. Elections are a necessary component of democracy, but they are not sufficient.
Nobody in Israel celebrated the triumph of Palestinian democracy when Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, and for good reason. When Austria’s Freedom Party—founded by former Nazis—joined the government in 1999 following Austrian elections, Israel downgraded its relations with the Austrian government and recalled its ambassador rather than waxing about the virtues of Austrian democracy. This is not to equate Religious Zionism with either Nazis or Islamist fundamentalist terrorists, but to use two extreme cases to demonstrate that elections cannot be celebrated simply for elections’ sake. What transpires later matters, and the fetishization of elections is precisely why many non-democratic regimes now routinely go through the exercise of holding them, as a way to forestall external criticism. It was unusual for non-democracies to have elections before a couple of decades ago, and now we have a raft of terms to describe places like Iran, Algeria, Russia, and others, from electoral authoritarianism to competitive authoritarianism to illiberal democracy. Elections divorced from any other consideration lead to undemocratic governance, so pointing to voting—and only voting—as ipso facto proof of democracy no matter what happens next is not a winning argument.
Israel has plenty of things that render it democratic beyond elections. But there are enough warning signs to make cheering what takes place on election day understandable but insufficient. “Respect the results” only works if the results do not end up hollowing out democracy so that it is a shell of itself. By all means, celebrate and be proud of Israeli democracy; it should not be taken for granted, something that Americans are increasingly beginning to understand firsthand. But do not make the mistake of praising Israeli democracy on the days that Israelis go to vote while ignoring what happens in between those elections, since in some ways the days on which Israeli citizens are not putting envelopes into ballot boxes are more important for democracy than the days on which they are.