In wake of judicial overhaul efforts, global index demotes Israeli democracy

V-Dem ranking drops Israel from ‘liberal democracy’ to ‘electoral democracy,’ cites declines in transparency and predictability of law, government attacks on judiciary

A photo provided by an anti-judicial overhaul activist shows thousands protesting in Tel Aviv with a sign reading 'The court is supreme,' September 9, 2023. (Gilad Furst)
File: A photo provided by an anti-judicial overhaul activist shows thousands protesting in Tel Aviv with a sign reading 'The court is supreme,' September 9, 2023. (Gilad Furst)

A leading international democracy watchdog has demoted Israel from its top-tier “liberal democracy” category for the first time, classing it as an “electoral democracy” in its 2024 annual global democracy index report.

The classification change marks the first time the V-Dem Institute, established in 2014, has found cause to demote Israel from its top category. Though the index has existed for only a decade, it has applied its ratings retroactively to over 50 years of tracked data, and so the demotion can be seen as a first for Israel since 1973.

The V-Dem 2024 index attributed the decline in Israel’s ranking to the government’s efforts to pass a contentious judicial overhaul last year, and legislation that prevented the High Court of Justice from nixing laws determined to be “unreasonable.” Although the court later overturned the legislation itself, the index cited its initial passage in the Knesset as eroding Israel’s democracy.

In addition, members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition of right, religious and far-right parties have been openly hostile and critical of the High Court, accusing it of being left-leaning and overreaching in its activities. These attacks on the highest judicial body in Israel were noted in the report.

“Notably, Israel lost its long-time status as a liberal democracy in 2023. It is now classified as an electoral democracy – for the first time in over 50 years,” the report stated. “This is primarily due to substantial declines in the indicators measuring the transparency and predictability of the law, and government attacks on the judiciary.”

The report also found that “among other things, Israel’s Knesset passed a bill in 2023 stripping the High Court of the power to invalidate laws, thus undermining checks on executive power. Indicators that are in substantive decline also include freedom from torture.”

In addition to assembling annual data sets, which are released in March each year, the V-Dem Institute has accumulated data on the state of democracies worldwide going as far back as 1973. A separate project by the institute examines historical data from before the French Revolution and until the early 1900s.

In its modern classification system, each country is assigned one of six classifications based on how democratic or undemocratic it is found to be.

From most free to least free, the designations are as follows: Liberal Democracy, Electoral Democracy, Democratic Grey Zone, Autocratic Grey Zone, Electoral Autocracy and Closed Autocracy.

Activists protest against the government’s judicial overhaul legislation, in Tel Aviv, on September 9, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A liberal democracy is defined by the V-Dem Institute as a country that “embodies the intrinsic value of protecting individual and minority rights against a potential ‘tyranny of the majority’ and state repression.”

A liberal democracy will uphold these values through “constitutionally-protected civil liberties, strong rule of law, and effective checks and balances that limit the use of executive power,” V-Dem adds.

Electoral democracy is a foundational concept for all other forms of democracy but unless expanded on, places less emphasis on the rights of the individual.

According to V-Dem, an electoral democracy “embodies the core value of making rulers responsive to citizens through periodic elections.”

In an electoral democracy, “suffrage is extensive; political and civil society organizations can operate freely; elections are clean and not marred by fraud or systematic irregularities; and elections affect the composition of the chief executive of the country,” the International Democracy Community explains of the concept.

“In between elections, there is freedom of expression and an independent media capable of presenting alternative views on matters of political relevance,” it adds.

Israelis protest against the judicial overhaul implemented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Along with Israel, countries that fell from being considered liberal democracies to electoral democracies were Portugal, Cyprus and Slovenia. Maintaining their classification as electoral democracies in 2024 were Austria, Greece, Jamaica, Lithuania, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Namibia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Vanuatu.

Among the countries that maintained their ranking as liberal democracies were the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand. Canada, meanwhile, rose a rank from electoral to liberal democracy, as did Suriname in South America.

Despite its rank drop, Israel remained top of the region, ranking as the only electoral democracy in the Middle East and North Africa group of countries. Its neighbors Jordan and Syria were listed as closed autocracies, while Egypt and Lebanon were both electoral autocracies. The Palestinian territories were split into two: Gaza, controlled by the Hamas terror group, was listed as a closed autocracy, and the West Bank, under the Palestinian Authority, was an electoral autocracy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on March 13, 2024 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last week, the Israel Democracy Institute published its 2023 Democracy Index which found public trust in the country’s political institutions has largely broken down. The annual survey of public opinion found only 30 percent of Jews polled last December expressed trust in the media; 23% in the government (down from 28% in June); and 19% in the Knesset (down from 24%).

On January 1, the High Court of Justice struck down the government’s reasonableness limitation law, annulling for the first time in the country’s history one of its quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.

That ruling marked the culmination of a year-long battle between the government and the judiciary over the nature of Israel’s democracy, and the question of which branch of government has the ultimate say over its constitutional character.

Ahead of the ruling, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, had warned the court that it should “not dare” to strike down the ruling, while Settlements Minister Orit Strock, a member of his party, accused the court of seeking to form a “dictatorship.” Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana had suggested that the coalition may not accept a ruling against the law and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not publicly state how he would act, appeared to back Ohana’s remarks.

The reasonableness limitation law was advanced after the government backed down from far-reaching and extreme judicial overhaul legislation that many legal scholars said would have severely damaged Israel’s democracy, including laws that would have given the ruling coalition near-total control over almost all judicial appointments, and which would have almost totally annulled judicial review over Knesset legislation.

That legislation was frozen by Netanyahu at the end of March 2023 in the face of severe civil unrest, mass protests, reserve military service refusal and the threat of nationwide strike action.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and all 14 other judges hear petitions against the reasonableness limitation law, September 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

But the reasonableness law, passed in July as an amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary, barred all courts, including the High Court, from deliberating on and ruling against government and ministerial decisions on the basis of the judicial standard of reasonableness.

That yardstick allowed the High Court to annul government and ministerial decisions if it believed that there had been substantive problems with the considerations used in such decisions, or the weight given to those considerations.

The government has largely suspended efforts to pass the overhaul in the wake of the war that erupted on October 7, when Palestinian terror group Hamas led a cross-border attack on Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians and abducting 253 people who were taken as hostages in Gaza.

Israel responded with a military campaign to destroy Hamas and free the hostages. Now in its sixth month, the war effort has largely halted unrelated Knesset legislation as political leaders strive for unity amid the fighting.

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