Israeli democracy and its military challenges

Commentary: There have been all kinds of aspects of militarization in the country, but Israelis are loyal to their democratic system

Soldiers at an IDF base participate in the democratic process on Election Day. Photo: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Israel has a system of government that is based on parliamentary democracy. The country held three elections in recent years, and this could be interpreted as a sign of trouble for the democratic system. Other emerging issues in this relatively young democracy are the status of the rule of law, national solidarity, and a growing gap between rich and poor.  Yet, ever since Israel was established in 1948 as a democracy, it has been successful in maintaining that status. It was always a democracy and it has managed to stay one over the years in spite of enormous social, economic and above all security challenges.

The existential threat faced by Israel could have been used as an excuse for replacing democracy with an autocratic system in which a powerful leader such as an army general can do what he believes is needed in order to protect the country. However, unlike many other states, Israel did not fall into this trap. 

The IDF is a predominant factor in the decisionmaking in Israel. There have also been many kinds of aspects of militarization in the country. This militarization of aspects of socio-political life has become accepted as the norm by the citizenry. One known example of this trend is that senior military officers frequently use their service as a springboard to a career in politics. In spite of all that, Israelis nonetheless stay loyal to the democratic system.

Arab states have always had autocratic regimes.  Some are religious, others secular, and others are a mix of the two. The Arab president or king typically rules the country with an iron fist, because without it, he fears he will not survive. Arab states adopted and developed certain democratic aspects over the years, but it remained clear that they retain autocratic structures at the core. This was certainly true with states that led the conflict against Israel: Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

Arab states have had overwhelming advantages compared to Israel, mostly in terms of the size of their territory, population, and of course their vast natural resources. But neither those advantages nor autocratic rule have been enough to defeat Israel. Despite the country's small size, Israel has consistently won wars not in spite of but rather because of its democracy. In recent decades, Israel has been engaged in an ongoing conflict with the autocratic regime in Iran. Israel’s old struggle with the Arabs could be compared to its current struggle.


Dr. Ehud Eilam has been dealing with and studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years. He served in the Israeli military and later on he worked for the Israeli Ministry of Defense as a researcher. He has a Ph.D and has published six books in the U.S./U.K. His latest book is Containment in the Middle East (University Press of Nebraska, 2019).

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