Diaspora Jews familiar with the Israeli political system tend to poke fun at the country’s numerous single-issue parties, from the Pirate party, which promoted a variety of personal freedoms, including the right to plagiarize and sail the high seas, to the former Man's Rights in the Family party, which sought to end the “unnatural” rights of women, as per the party platform.
However, the plight of Israel’s party system is no laughing matter. The depth to which Israel’s political parties have sunk is evidenced in the low levels of public trust that they engender.
The 2016 Israeli Democracy Index survey found that Israel’s political parties earn the lowest trust rating (only 14%) of all public institutions measured. The Israeli public is also critical of its parliamentarians and of their level of commitment to voters.
Why is this so?
In recent years, in response to the crisis of the older political parties like Likud and Labor, new parties have emerged, such as Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beitenu and Shas. Many of the new parties do not employ democratic processes in the selection of candidates for leadership positions or Knesset seats; instead, most important decisions are made by the party leader. As a result, the public is left with only one avenue of participation: either accept or reject the finished product on Election Day. Such a process denies Israeli citizens any real influence over the character of their parties or the identity of their representatives.
Today, the calamitous state of established political parties, coupled with the structural problems of the single-leader parties, is deepening the damage to this central institution of representative government. Today's political parties are not fulfilling their classic roles that are so crucial in any viable democratic system: growing leadership, engaging in ideological debate, brokering disputes, and proposing practical policy innovations designed to improve the lot of the citizens.
In the 1980s, 18% of all eligible voters held party membership. Today, that figure is less than 5%. Political participation rates are correspondingly low. And too many of those who do decide to “play politics” tend to belong to groups with vested financial interests or extremist ideologies. This reality threatens to sacrifice the public good on the altar of special interests.
Yet we should not despair. This nadir, particularly when viewed against the backdrop of the possibilities afforded by the digital age, is also an opportunity for political parties in Israel or any democracy to reinvent themselves and become more relevant than ever before.
To convince a diverse public to become more politically engaged, we must build a new party paradigm that offers multiple options for membership and participation. One idea is to hold open primaries that will enable a much broader segment of the public to take part in choosing the party leader or the list of candidates for the Knesset. This approach would require the establishment of screening mechanisms that would weed out extremists—such as requiring payment of a nominal fee and a statement of ideological affiliation that will make it difficult for external opponents to sabotage a candidate or party from within.
Another idea is to create virtual forums of deliberation as an alternative to the current party chapters, allowing more people to play an active role in politics on a daily basis. In addition, given the right tools, parties could boost their visibility on social media and help combat the worrying personalization of politics that is amplified by the skillful use of Facebook and Twitter by individual politicians.
Harnessing the power of readily available technologies tools to promote political engagement and revitalize intra-party democratic practices is essential for strengthening party institutions and restoring the public’s faith in government.
The writer is President of the Israel Democracy Institute.