Democracy is facing complex challenges all around the world. Ultra-nationalist, autocratic and populist politics is on the rise and it does not work well for democratic values. The state of Israel went through the pangs of populist and strong leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu last year. He dominated Israeli politics for over a decade and seemed quite invisible not long ago, got called once as “the king of Israel” by Time magazine in 2012.

But 2021 was a turning point as Israel as emerged from the shadow of Netanyahu. After India, Israel is another young democratic state in Asia (except ex-imperial Japan) and it is important for us to know how democracy came out better there in 2021.

As a student of international politics, I came across the subject of politics and foreign policy of Israel at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2005. The professor to teach the course had the good humour to give a provocative start – Israel is a balagan (a mess) and if one gets two Israelis in a room, they will turn up with three disagreements between them.

The state of Israel is just one year younger than independent India and in many ways like India when it comes to conflicts of modernity and tradition, minority-majority issues and the never-ending struggles to remain democratic amidst deeply divided societies.

Balagan is a word that can help one understand the everydayness of life in Israel as much as the complexity of its politics. Israelis are constantly seeking more from their lives, they ask for more from their governments and they are known often for chutzpah which is to be audacious, incorrigible people.

Haaretz, an Israeli daily, used to have a word of the day and it explained the origin and meaning of balagan this way: “A balagan is what you have in your room. A balagan is what is going on between you and your girlfriend. A balagan is also often the state of Israeli politics. In short, a balagan is a mess”.

Beyond Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu dominated Israeli national politics for more than a decade with his charismatic leadership and aggressive politics and he pushed domestic politics to brinkmanship after he was indicted in three corruption cases. The fact that the Israeli judicial system could get to the sitting prime minister is promising.

Benjamin Netanyahu dominated Israeli national politics for more than a decade with his charismatic leadership and aggressive politics. Photo credit: Corrine Kern/Reuters

Last year was decisive for Israeli democracy because after the four consecutive national elections in less than two years there emerged a unity government with a large coalition led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid.

According to Yohanan Plesner, President of Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, “Israeli democracy was the verge of a cliff [in 2021], some very dangerous ideas were put forward and were promoted, and if this package of anti-constitutional ideas would have been passed by Netanyahu, our democratic regime would have been void of many of its democratic characters…in this respect, it was not a vote about some policy preferences, it was a vote about nature of our democratic regime.”

Netanyahu needed to remain in power so that he could save himself from the Israeli courts and Attorney General. He also enjoyed a significant loyal vote bank of the ultra-nationalists and the ultra-religious parties who thought the judicial system is working with the heavy leftist hand behind to take down the most accomplished nationalist leader of theirs.

His image as a strong-decisive-macho leader of Israel works well still and analysts do not call it the post-Netanyahu era in Israel. Israeli democracy needed to move beyond such a powerful leader last year. It was an Israeli-Arab leader, Mansour Abbas, leader of the party called Ra’am (United Arab List), who decided to join the government of Bennett, ending Netanyahu’s long run. It is historical in many ways that an Arab party is part of the government in Israel for the first time and it is a good thing for Israeli democracy.

However, the new government has not yet addressed some fundamental issues that challenge the democratic ethos. This includes the long occupation of the Palestinian territories.

It has also yet to make a statement on the nationality bill passed during Netanyahu years that marks Israel not only a Jewish state but the state primarily for the Jews.

Governments pick the issues that they can handle with stability and avoid some that could cause their fall.

Lessons for India

There are many lessons here for India. First, charismatic and powerful leaders might not be the best phenomenon for democracy in the long run. Their power-maximisation dents democratic institutions as the leaders adopt aggressive ways of retaining power.

Second, coalition politics, however chaotic, is better for democracy. Israel is known to have had coalition governments in the past but what makes the coalition of 2021 unique is the fact nine-odd parties that fight each other on the most essential matters of politics have come to a consensus – prevent the political system from one-manship.

The coalition has three right-wing parties, two centrist parties, two left-wing parties and one Arab party and it is one of the most representative governments in Israel since 1948.

It is inclusive for women leaders too: there are nine female ministers out of the total of 27. It is remarkable from the gender point of view as Israel, like most other nation-states, is male-dominated and hence less democratic for women.

“What started as a political accident [his government], can now turn into a purpose,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the United Nations. “And that purpose is unity.”

Indian opposition parties should not seek unity for the sake of forming a non-Bharatiya Janata Party government. That is another kind of power politics that is not very constructive for democracy either. Instead, they should do this for the sake of national unity and larger democratic representation of diverse interest groups.


Social unity

Israel has a divided society, much like India, where religion, culture-traditions, ideologies divide rather than unite people. Such societies are fragile hence and their national security is usually threatened from within rather than from external enemies (no matter how much rhetoric there is against the Arabs in Israel or Muslims in the case of India).

The lack of social unity is an urgent concern in a strong-military state like Israel and that tells us something very critical: India, too, will not be able to grow, economically or be a world-guru (as Modi wishes it to be) if the social cohesiveness is not protected. Hate, violence and bigotry are some of the dangerous ills we have got and the politics of polarisation has to stop.

Naftali Bennett is likely to make a visit to India soon as India-Israel are going to celebrate the 30 years of their relations that started in January 1992. I wish he would repeat to Indian leaders and Prime Minister Narendra Modi what he said in his last speech at United Nations: “In a polarised world, where algorithms fuel our anger, people on the right and on the left operate in two separate realities, each in their own social media bubble, they hear only the voices that confirm what they already believe in. People end up hating each other. Societies get torn apart. Countries broken from within go nowhere.”

Khinvraj Jangid is an Associate Professor and Director at Centre for Israel Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. His email address