Opinion: Why does the media ignore the only true democracy in the Middle East?

Israeli democracy has been quietly improving for years, even according to the media’s own metrics.

By Jacob Sivak, The Algemeiner

A recent opinion column by the journalist Gwynne Dyer was titled “No Functioning Democracies in Arab World.”

The article notes that in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, attempted democratic revolutions led to terrible civil wars, and now a disputed coup in Tunisia may have ended the one Arab democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring.

But Dwyer doesn’t mention the one Middle Eastern country that has remained democratic under tremendous existential pressure: Israel.

For the past 13 years, the influential magazine The Economist, has published a comprehensive annual Democracy Index, which analyzes in detail the democratic processes that operate in more than 160 countries around the world. The Index is based on 60 numeric scores and rankings grouped in five different categories, measuring electoral processes and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. Countries are categorized as one of four regime types; full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes.

For 2020, 23 countries are listed as full democracies, 52 are flawed democracies, 35 are hybrid regimes, and 57 are authoritative regimes. The US, labeled a flawed democracy (along with countries such as France, Italy, and Portugal) is ranked 25, while Israel, a flawed democracy as well, is ranked 27.

The results for each country are placed into one of six global regions, with 20 countries comprising those of the category of North Africa and the Middle East.

The 2020 Democracy Index Report states that this region “suffers from a concentration of absolute monarchies, authoritarian regimes and the prevalence of military conflicts, and it is the lowest ranked of all the regions covered. … The few bright spots included increased political participation in Israel, as shown by the high turnout in the election in 2020, despite it being the third one in two years.”

Israel’s 2020 score and ranking is far above any other country in the Middle East. Tunisia, ranked 54, just above India and Hungary, is the only other Middle Eastern country listed as a flawed democracy (and that might change); the rest are either hybrid regimes, or, even more likely, authoritarian ones. Turkey, which is listed with the Western Europe group, is described as a hybrid regime with a rank of 104.

In fact, the first Democracy Index (2006) listed Israel as a flawed democracy, ranked number 47 — while the US was listed as a full democracy at number 17. During the intervening 13 years the ranking for the US has gone down, but the ranking for Israel has improved considerably, in spite of persistent and frequent threats and attacks from terrorist group and hostile countries.

The most recent Israeli election, held in March 2021, resulted in the formation of a new coalition government, excluding Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party.

For the first time in Israeli history, the coalition included an Israeli Arab (Palestinian) political party, the United Arab List (Ra’am). A thorough analysis of this development in a July 2021 article by Thomas Falk in Al Jazeera, describes the events that led up to a conservative Islamist party becoming a part of the governing coalition of the Jewish State. (Ironically, Al Jazeera is based in Qatar, a Gulf state with an authoritarian government that is ranked 126th on the 2020 democracy Index.)

Given this inclusion of an Arab party, as well as statements suggesting that non-Orthodox Jewish religious practices will be more accepted by the state, the next Democracy Index may result in a further improvement in the ranking for Israel.

And what about the “elephant in the room” question?

How does the Democracy Index deal with Gaza and the West Bank? Simple. Since its inception in 2006, the Index treats Palestine as a separate state, de jure (recognized as legitimate by other states). Its ranking in 2019? Number 117.

Jacob Sivak, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor in the School of Optometry, University of Waterloo.