I have run across various articles, tweets, and other items decrying an unbridled “majoritarianism” in Israel, as the current government moves rapidly towards granting parliamentary majorities control over the previously independent judiciary.1 One example of the genre is by Natan Sachs for Brookings, which refers to “Israel’s majoritarian nightmare.”
For those of us who are familiar with Arend Lijphart‘s work, this characterization of Israel comes as quite a surprise. Consider that his Patterns of Democracy rated Israel the third least majoritarian of his set of democracies. I am referring to his “executives-parties” dimension. The other dimension Lijphart calls “federal-unitary.” This includes judicial review, so it is relevant here, too. But I will focus on executive-parties. (Israel is highly unitary—no regional governments of any real powers.) Lijphart’s graph of his two dimensions is shown below. Note how Israel (ISR) is plotted the upper-left corner. On the executive-parties dimension, it is among the furthest to the left, corresponding to the consensus democracies on this dimension.
Source: From Arend Lijphart, Pattens of Democracy, Yale University Press, 2012, p. 244.
So Israel, according to Lijphart, is one of the highly “consensus” democracies—the opposite type to “majoritarian.” What does he base that on? Several things, but key factors are:
- Use of proportional representation. No argument here.
- Tendency for (a) short-lived cabinets, which are (b) often oversized (contain at least one party that could leave without depriving the government of its parliamentary majority).
It is 2b that is the rub now. The current cabinet is anything but oversized. It is a minimal winning coalition with a bare majority. It consists of only right-wing parties (unusual, as Benjamin Netanyahu’s past coalitions have never had his Likud as the left-most party in the cabinet). It has just 64 seats (of 120).
This is not the first such cabinet, however. When did Israel last have a cabinet that was minimal winning with a bare majority? Not so long ago! The one in question was not ideologically narrow (far from it!), but it was politically narrow. I am referring to the “change” government led by Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid, which was in power in 2021-22, and about which I mused whether it was “majoritarian” or “consensus.”
So perhaps we might criticize Lijphart for using a behavioral indicator (e.g., how big and broad coalitions tend to be) for what is mostly an institutionally based typology of majoritarian vs. consensus democracy.
There’s nothing is Israel’s constitutional rules requiring oversized or diverse coalitions, after all. Examples of features that might impel political leaders to build oversized coalitions (if not outright require them) might be strong bicameralism, whereby government leaders want to ensure a majority in both chambers, or a detailed and entrenched constitution, which might lead to governments with super-majorities because their policy agenda requires constitutional amendments. No such features are to be found in Israel.
We might note that the role of the courts—and just about everything else—and the constitution itself (Basic Laws) always could be changed by a bare majority. Other than some specific provisions, the Basic Laws that map out the functioning of the Israeli political system and define limits on government authority (e.g., protecting rights) are subject to change by a Knesset majority.2 Questions of court powers and ease of constitutional amendment are features of a democracy that Lijphart places on the federal-unitary dimension (which always struck me as a little odd, actually).
In other words, it has always been the case that the judiciary had the powers it had–such as the ability to strike down a regular law as being inconsistent with a Basic Law–only because a majority in parliament had never acted to say it did not have such powers. Moreover, the Knesset had passed legislation setting up very independent processes of appointing supreme court justices and other judges and the attorney general. Almost none of the supposed overreach that proponents of judicial reform are moving to change was ever codified in the constitution (i.e., a Basic Law). Yet a Knesset majority at any time could have codified such powers–or limited or abolished them. That is arguably a pretty non-consensus feature of any political system!
So at the end of the day, what is a “majoritarian” democracy? One that typically has single-party bare-majority governments and limited checks on what the government can do (in a nutshell, Lijphart’s definition)? Or one in which a parliamentary majority encounters limited checks, whether or not coalitions or single-party governments form?
Over time—and well before Israel’s current move to cut judicial power—I have come to believe that this second definition better suits “majoritarian”.
When a parliamentary majority is unchecked, but there is a multiparty system, we might ordinarily expect that coalitions will be short lived and will shift, meaning no single combination of parties comprising a bare majority is likely to remain in power for long.
That certainly describes Israel since about 2018 quite well. (The government formed in 2015 was initially oversized but became minimal winning when Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu defected. That defection help precipitate the deadlock with four elections 2019-21 and yet another in 2022.)
We do not know, of course, how long this current government will last. Its members are sure acting like they know it could break apart at any moment. Earlier I noted that one of the criteria for “consensus” government, according to Lijphart, is short-lived cabinets. This maybe has not changed!
But Israel in 2023 sure does not look like a “consensus democracy” anymore.3
And the root of why it does not is inherent in its rather extreme case of parliamentary-majority sovereignty, but also rests on contingent factors like Netanyahu having burned bridges with center-left parties (and even right-wing parties that joined the previous “change” government).
Israel in 2023 thus stands as a significant case for understanding how we think about patterns of democracy more generally.
1. I will not attempt to summarize the entire package of judicial overhaul measures. But the key features are to give the government a majority on the judicial appointments commission, to require a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court to declare a law unconstitutional (i.e., in conflict with a provision of a Basic Law), and to allow a Knesset majority to override any such declaration of unconstitutionality.
2. In many cases, moreover, that need not be an absolute majority (61) but merely a plurality. For instance, two of the Basic Laws on which the Supreme Court has based many of its rights-broadening rulings were initially passed with well fewer than a third of members voting in favor (with many abstentions), although some subsequent amendments to these Basic Laws obtained large majorities.
3. And not only because of the unusual situation for PR-coalitional parliamentary systems by which the current government rests on a manufactured majority: The parties comprising the cabinet collectively won less than half the vote. (Manufactured majorities are, of course, common in majoritarian democracies.)