Decade in Review: Israeli Governance in Crisis

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IDI Former President and Founder Dr. Arye Carmon, one of Israel's foremost experts on political reform, sums up the Israeli political scene at the end of the first decade of the third millennium in an article that was published in collaboration with Walla!, a popular Israeli website.

Our system of parliamentary democracy has fallen into a difficult set of circumstances as a result of the growing gap between Israel's rapidly changing society and the democratic institutions that are supposed to accommodate change and provide solutions to meet new needs. The static nature of our democratic institutions and structures has given rise to three distinct types of threats to the health of Israeli governance.

The first is the readily apparent threat of survival governance. In recent years the elected government's ability to propose and execute long-term plans, implement initiatives, and solve problems in various fields (security and foreign policy, economics, social affairs, etc.) has become increasingly limited. These changes have led to the burgeoning of a survivalist approach to building governing coalitions. Today, governments are comprised of numerous small parties, which reflect narrow sectorial interests at the expense of the overall public good. Patchwork coalitions shackle the government's ability to make important decisions and undermine its long-term effectiveness. Ever since direct election of the Prime Minister (the 'two-ballot system') was instituted—and despite the fact that this system has been abandoned—the status and power of the large parties (i.e. parties in which the national interest in the areas of international policy and security, economics and social affairs, etc. top the agenda) have declined, as has these parties' ability to realize their policy objectives.

At the same time, internal developments in the large parties have eroded the foundation of the party as an organizational body, as well as the public's trust in it (via fictitious party votes, a broken system of party primaries, etc.). The failings within the party system, and the subsequent drop in public confidence, have severely impaired the ability of elected officials' to implement the party platform and policies. The development of a sub-culture of "rebels" heading intra-party factions has replaced party discipline. In addition to all of these problems, the party heads are characterized by a shortsighted, short-term, and selfish approach that places their personal ambitions above all other considerations. This is manifested by, among other things, the trend to pay "strategic advisors" to manage election campaigns that were previously run by the parties themselves.

The second threat facing the Israeli political system is sectorialization. The sectorial parties stress sectorial—and sometimes separatist—interests at the expense of a comprehensive perspective that is obligated to weigh the social needs of the entire citizenry. In the past, these sectorial parties have imposed the sale of public assets and interests (e.g., canceling welfare payments, waiving core curriculum programs in the education system, etc) and are responsible for the government's survivalist mentality.

Sectorialization is an outgrowth of the direct elections that shattered the foundation of government in Israel by deepening rifts, intensifying verbal violence, and strengthening anti-establishment trends. Furthermore, demographic shifts in Israel are likely to aggravate the trend toward sectorialization and embolden sectorial parties.

The third existential challenge facing Israel's public institutions is a culture of anti-politics. The public's faith in democratic institutions and, thus, in the legitimacy of the system of government has been consistently dropping. The public has not fully and firmly assimilated the model of parliamentary democracy into its consciousness. Moreover, three large and important groups in Israeli society—Haredim (Jewish ultra-Orthodox), Arabs, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union—do not accept, to varying degrees, the basic rules of democracy.

There is a close reciprocal link between these three threats—the decline in the ability to govern effectively, sectorialization, and the substantial increase in anti-political sentiments—which makes it incumbent upon us to consider major reforms to our system of government. We must explore the potential impact of each of these proposed amendments to the system and the effect they will have upon these three problem areas. An inverse relationship may be drawn between the aspiration for stable, effective governance and the drive for sectorialization.

The road to positive change cannot be paved prior to addressing these threats. Nonetheless, this road must continue to follow the route of parliamentary democracy. Israel's system of parliamentary democracy must be stabilized, strengthened, enhanced and preserved. These should be the overarching goals of all efforts towards political reform?

Stable governance is achieved by establishing parties and/or large political blocs that have the ability to present long-term policy principles focused upon the common good. We should hear these intentions laid out before elections and expect to see them realized following the elections.

Stability is achieved by reducing sectorialism and replacing it with an electoral system that allows for the integration of groups that vote for special-interest parties. This is a requisite step toward a healthy political culture founded on integrative trends, as opposed to destructive trends that deepen rifts.

Finally, stable governance is achieved through strengthening participatory democracy. Individuals should feel that they have both direct and indirect impact on the processes taking place around them—in their private lives, as well as in the public realm. This same sense of empowerment must live within all levels of governance—from the community, to the municipal authority, and up to the halls of parliament. 

Dr. Arye Carmon is the Former President and Founder of the Israel Democracy Institute and one of Israel's foremost experts on political reform.