Israel’s most important export is its democratic struggle

Reef Itzhaki October 2023

Francis Fukuyama was patently wrong in declaring the “end of history” over 30 years ago, believing that the fall of the Communist bloc would give rise to a utopian global liberal democracy. Never has his misconception been so evident as in the threats facing liberal democracy in recent years by a growing anti-liberal camp. Parties and organizations affiliated with the populist Right are devising strategies to impose their agendas, forming anti-liberal alliances across borders, and at the same time (and rather absurdly) waging a witch hunt against any sign of liberal cooperation. Their goal is clear: to condemn and erode the liberal-democratic foundations of the West, and replace them by spreading and inculcating a conservative, fundamentalist, and corrupt global model of government.

These anti-liberal forces do not operate only through institutional frameworks. They are frighteningly effective in permeating broad sectors of society and generating moral deterioration.

Israel, for example, has seen a sharp increase in the exclusion of women from the public sphere, along with an increase in crimes by Jewish West Bank settlers against Palestinians. In the US, the repeal of the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling has encouraged conservative organizations to promote a civil surveillance strategy against women who have undergone or intend to undergo an abortion. In Germany, the recent gains of the far-Right Alternative for Germany (AfD) have given rise to a growing number of dialogue circles in which party supporters engage the general public in a bid to mainstream their radical views.

Western democracies are displaying pronounced helplessness in the face of these anti-liberal trends and activism. They have refrained from efforts to root out the phenomenon of democratic withdrawal for a variety of reasons, neglecting their vital normative role. Poland and Hungary continue to pursue anti-liberal policies, while the EU, fearing internal collapse, is crippled by indecision over its response other than imposing economic sanctions.

The West has also responded with considerable inconsistency to the drastic anti-democratic measures adopted by the current Netanyahu government. The deepening occupation carried out under cover of the regime coup roiling the country has prompted, at best, clear White House condemnation and warnings about the future of US-Israel relations; at worst, it has generated stuttered statements from Brussels.

After years of trying to contain these anti-liberal forces, we can no longer escape the realization that we are in the midst of a global campaign that requires a decisive victory, and we can no longer wait for Western leaders to make the first move. Given the leadership and ideological vacuum afflicting Western political-liberal echelons, and the public’s mistrust of them, civil society activity is more vital than ever. Liberal organizations in the West must rise above the obstacles posed by forces on the right and establish an international partnership to lead a global campaign for democracy, leaving no country behind.

The current government

THE CURRENT government’s planned regime coup has given rise to a widespread liberal awakening, which has recorded impressive achievements over the past eight months. Despite the anemic reaction of Western governments to the Netanyahu government’s attempted democratic withdrawal, the world has not remained indifferent to the power of Israel’s emerging liberal camp. At the same time, and unlike Hungary and Poland, the protest movement has gained considerable support among leading economic, defense, and cultural circles, while continuing to learn from similar struggles around the world.

The rise of the Israeli liberal camp is particularly unique and impressive given the innate handicaps facing the struggle for democracy. The continued occupation, the rise of Jewish nationalism, and the widespread and deep impact of ultra-Orthodox political influence have long been a hallmark of the state’s identity. Therefore, the consequences of the democratic withdrawal will be much more severe in Israel than in Poland and Hungary if the democratic struggle fails to achieve its goals. The emergence of the liberal camp and its effective stand against the handicaps it faces, the great support it enjoys at home, its success in exporting the protest to Jewish-Israeli communities around the world, and the extensive global coverage of its struggle – all pave the way for driving an international liberal partnership.

The Israeli liberal camp must showcase its struggle to the world as the pivot of a global ideological campaign, the success of which could set a precedent for civil protest overcoming the worst restrictions and conditions imposed by governments in democratic retreat. The Western world must understand that the success of the liberal camp in Israel is most likely the best textbook example for which it could ask. In fact, Israel’s democratic struggle may emerge as the country’s most important and effective export sector, more so than its arms deals, and perhaps even more than its high-tech or agricultural innovations.

IN THE absence of sufficient action by Western political echelons, the power of civil society can serve as a significant asset for the struggle of the global liberal camp. The democratic struggle in Israel, and elsewhere in the world, presents us with a bleak picture regarding the liberal camp’s growing sense of alienation from its representatives. Civil society, endowed with key research and action capacity, can bridge that gap between them.

Research institutes specialize in cross-border mutual learning, developing concepts and generating knowledge relevant to political action. Think tanks and activist organizations seek to promote political influence, based on existing knowledge and to develop effective practices. Political influence may be exerted on the institutional level, such as drafting and publishing policy papers vis-à-vis elected officials in parliamentary committees, or on the public level, through demonstrations, social campaigns, the media, etc.

Two avenues are open to political cooperation among liberal organizations around the world. The first is promoting joint action against global illiberal developments, such as the undermining of judicial systems, weakening of the media, and shrinking the space of civil society. The democracy defense campaign requires an organizational coordination mechanism (a kind of war room) promoting a number of significant steps: creating pressure on the political echelon in the West and international institutions to oppose escalating measures of democratic retreat, awakening public awareness through designated protests, and mobilizing various resources, such as the business sector.

The Mitvim Institute took on the challenge. It is currently working to establish a network of liberal pro-democracy think tanks and policies around the world to promote these goals of learning and joint action. In this context, it held a briefing in February with civil society organizations in Turkey, issuing nine recommendations for the pro-democracy struggle in Israel. In April, a panel discussion with Czech experts discussed the successful opposition to the right-wing populist Babiš government. On October 11, the Mitvim Institute, together with civil society organizations from Eastern Europe, will hold  a joint conference in the European Parliament in Brussels to discuss the future of the struggle for democracy.

The conference will deal with the importance of democratic solidarity and ways to strengthen it. The conference will launch a new platform of civil society organizations from Israel and around the world, Democrisis: Civic Action Network, linking protest organizations as they work together to ensure the resilience of liberal democracy against those working to weaken it. This platform will serve as the foundation stone for building an international liberal-democratic war room.

THE SECOND channel available to political cooperation among liberal organizations is the formulation of liberal-democratic ideas and concepts relevant to the reality of the struggle in which we find ourselves. These will provide the narrative and tools necessary for those fighting for freedom and equality around the world. Likewise, discussions among liberal civil society organizations on a global level, through strategic dialogues and international conferences, could serve as an up-to-date conceptual foundation for the Western political echelon in a variety of areas, such as inclusive foreign policy, entrenchment of the rule of law, and protection of human and minority rights.

Much of the Israeli public is beginning to understand the importance of cross-border liberal ties in achieving democratic victory. According to Mitvim’s 2023 Foreign Policy Index, 45% of the public has been influenced to a great or very great extent by international criticism of the regime coup in shaping their positions on the issue. In other words, while steadfast for years in the face of criticism from the Western world, with an emphasis on the Palestinian issue, many Israelis seem to have realized the relevance of warnings about the broader consequences of local democratic regression. Many survey respondents appear to have gradually realized that regime change processes in Israel are intimately linked to the global struggle for democracy.

As a result, the emerging liberal camp in Israel is increasingly appreciative of the demonstrated international engagement with its goals, but above all, it knows that its success at home depends on expressing mutual concern for similar struggles in the Western world. Therefore, only a broad liberal-civil partnership, not limited to countries where democracy is collapsing, can advance one more step to a substantive democratic victory.

We are in the throes of a new cold war: the democratic struggle is occurring everywhere, including countries considered strongholds of democracy. The protest leaders and civil society organizations in Israel must reach out to their partners around the world and create a liberal-democratic bloc, just as Western countries united against the Communist bloc. They must act in close coordination, both in terms of learning and political cooperation, just as the anti-liberal camp has succeeded in cross-border affiliations. Above all, they must understand that the “end of history” will never happen. The forces struggling for democracy can never let down their guard.

The article was published on “The Jerusalem Post“, on September 26th.

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