Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 16 October 2023


Fractured democracies embolden their enemies

The Times

There have always been two arguments in favour of the existence of the state of Israel. One is that, after centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust, there should be a national homeland for Jewish people. The barbaric atrocities of Hamas and the antisemitic chants in many parts of the world in the past ten days have underscored the need for that.

The second is that Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East: an island of freedom in a lake of autocrats and dictators. Lebanon holds elections but only to test the strength of armed camps and ethnic groups in a barely functioning state. Egypt’s flirtation with free elections ended with the return of the usual one-man rule. Tunisia, a bright hope in recent years, has been sliding back to autocracy. The Gulf states have powerful economic visions but democracy does not feature in them. For decades, Israel has been the beacon of freedom and the rule of law.

Yet in the run-up to this latest and most brutal war, Israeli democracy has been very nearly torn apart. Benjamin Netanyahu is a prime minister on trial for corruption while simultaneously seeking to neuter the judiciary. Abandoned by many allies, he has hung on through pacts with far-right figures and religious extremists, intensifying the polarisation of Israeli society.

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The national security minister was previously convicted of supporting terrorism and inciting racism. Allegations of a “coup” and “treachery” have abounded, as vast numbers have taken to the streets in protest against judicial reforms that would remove the only check on the power of ministers. Many minorities, including Israeli Arabs, gay people and secular people, have feared for their rights. Deep divisions opened up in the armed forces and intelligence services. Earlier this year, elite air force pilots even said they would refuse a call up for duty.

We might never know how much the unprecedented internal fracturing of Israel emboldened those planning a massive terrorist attack. But no one who seeks to destroy the state of Israel could watch its internal politics recently without finding considerable encouragement.


The great strength of democracy is the airing of competing ideas and the merging of the best of them within universally accepted rules. Yet this tips over into a fatal weakness if the ideas are absolutist and exclusive, with the rules themselves at stake. It is when democracy is interpreted as the right of a narrow majority to override the rights of minorities, or when a small minority abuses the rules to paralyse agreement by others, or when an elected leader believes that winning means taking it all, that its assailants start licking their lips.

The shock of the Hamas attack has temporarily pushed Israel’s leaders into a unity government, but every member of it will have, in the back of their minds, their next move when the war is over. That might finally bring the fall of Netanyahu, although no one should assume that his long career won’t have a final, unscrupulous twist. The severe cultural divisions within the country will not abruptly disappear. The perfectly proportional voting system amplifies the voices of extremism and rewards rigidity of opinion. Creating national unity once Hamas has been defeated will still be a difficult struggle.

Israel is not the only democracy where irreconcilable internal divisions are giving comfort to its adversaries. One might imagine, for instance, that this would be the busiest possible time for the US ambassador to Israel. Except there isn’t one. Embarrassed senators are this week attempting to put that right, but nor is there a US ambassador to Egypt, Kuwait or Oman. Nor a lead official for the Middle East within the US Agency for International Development, critical to humanitarian assistance in the region. Nor an approved co-ordinator for counterterrorism in the State Department. All these are blocked in the US Senate, as are hundreds of nominees for military posts, including many positions at Central Command, which oversees the Middle East. Entrenched opinions on unrelated matters are being placed ahead of the national interest.

By far the most damaging impasse in Washington is the inability of the House of Representatives to elect a new Speaker, something that has never happened before and has brought the business of Congress to a standstill. A narrow margin between parties, with a fanatical Republican minority determined to thwart any nominee of whom they don’t approve, has made Congress dysfunctional. While this could bring dangerous consequences for the United States, including yet another shutdown of government, it is already affecting another war that has become a test of democracy – in Ukraine. A spending bill was only passed on condition that it did not include further aid for that embattled country, even though it is fighting for its existence.

If you are Vladimir Putin, realising your only way of winning your disastrous war is to carry on with it longer than the attention span of the West, this is the signal you have been waiting for. A Congress so divided that it can’t even pass measures on which the majority of its members agree — aid for Ukraine — is a sign that bloody persistence on the battlefield might yet pay off. It is an incentive to keep going, an illustration of psychological weakness in a power that otherwise has all the power and resources to ensure Russia can’t win. Uncertainty in America, underlined by Trump’s burgeoning popularity, can only prolong the war. People will die, thousands of miles away, because of a narrow-minded refusal to work together on Capitol Hill.

Leaders and voters in democracies have it entirely in their power to arrest these trends. As I write, election results from Poland suggest the ruling Law and Justice party will have lost power. I have old friends in that party, who started out as anti-communists and moderate Eurosceptics. But they have since turned into a party that has sought to manipulate the judiciary, curtail media freedom and politicise the armed forces. Now I can only join in welcoming their likely defeat. It is an example of voters understanding that the abuse of power can bring democracy itself into question.

In Britain, despite chaotic moments in the past few years, our democracy is stronger than most. The rule of law is observed and our political parties have learnt from their craziest experiments. But here and among our allies, global events provide a lesson that strong civil institutions, impartial public servants, independent judges, competitive and balanced media, and parties that seek broad majority support are to be cherished.

Democracy involves more than the strident repetition of simplistic assertions parroted on social media. It means governing, sometimes with compromise, always with respect, to bind a nation together. If we forget this, Israel and Ukraine will not be the only free countries where the enemy is coming through the gates.

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