Local Elections: A Much Needed Balance of Power

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The local elections this week in Israel—taking place at a time of war—have many Israelis asking, perhaps louder than usual, is it actually important to vote in these elections? The answer to this question is a resounding yes.

Tel Aviv municipality building. Photo by: Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90

The local elections this week in Israel—taking place at a time of war—have many Israelis asking, perhaps louder than usual, is it actually important to vote in these elections? The answer to this question is a resounding yes, and to understand why, we must first consider Israel's system of local government and how it fits in to Israeli governance at large.

In contrast to many other democracies, which have a balance of power between central and local governments, Israel is one of the most centralized countries in the democratic world. On the Local Authority Index established by the EU, which focuses on the degree of local autonomy in a broad range of matters, Israel ranks at the very bottom of all countries in the EU and OECD (as of 2020). Similarly, in an index developed by World Bank researchers to examine the degree of decentralization of local authorities, Israel was ranked last out of OECD countries (and in 94th place out of 182 countries in the world).

The centralization of authority in Israel is manifested in many ways. For starters, the proportion of Israel's local authority budgets out of the total government budget is very low compared to the rest of the world—this reflects the low power of local government in community-specific policy areas, such as education and public transportation. Along with this, there is a broad scope of regulatory guidelines and procedures imposed on local authorities by Knesset and the government, many of which mandate close supervision over the authorities' work. Decisions at the core of local authorities’ powers can be carried out only with the approval of the Ministry of Interior—in stark contrast to what is deemed acceptable in other countries, where such oversight is conducted only after the decisions take effect.

This centralization is based on the fundamental notion—an outlier internationally—that local government is the executive arm of the central government and not an independent, autonomous body. The director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Yossi Sheli, described his notion of the hierarchy: “Mayors are the foot soldiers of the central government.” He went on to compare them to battalion commanders who are subordinate to the brigade and senior commanders.

This perspective is misaligned with public sentiment in Israel. A survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, two months after the start of the war, found that 40% of Israelis think that, since October 7, local authorities have been out-performing the central government; 23% think that the two echelons are about equal; and only 8% believe that the central government is doing better. Accordingly, 60% support the idea that many powers should be transferred from government ministries to local authorities when the war is over; only 13% disagree.

Graph 1: Public perception of their local government in comparison with the central government (%)

In light of Israel's relatively weak local authorities, Israelis may be asking why voting in local elections is important – perhaps Israelis should only take interest in local government when their status has been strengthened? This is the wrong way to look at it—precisely because of the centralized structure of Israel's governing system, it could not be more important for Israelis' voices to be heard at the local level.  

While most other democracies have intermediate governing levels between national and local government, such as states or provinces, Israel only has local government. This means that local government is the only authority, other than Knesset, whose authority and legitimacy is derived from the people—they are the one and only other body that is directly accountable to the public. What is more, even without a formal legal framework for stronger local government, we are seeing them become increasingly independent. While in the past most mayors strongly identified and ran on the lists of national political parties, recent decades have seen a gradual process of distancing local identification with national parties. One result is strengthening of the status of mayors themselves, as opposed to serving as figureheads focused on a national agenda. Indeed, in this "post-party" reality, these leaders see themselves as less beholden to national politics and as more committed to local needs.

Even on a practical level, local authorities have proven themselves to be just about the only possible counterweight to the excessive powers of the central government. We have seen many examples of this in the past year, such as the campaign by the Union of Local Authorities against several government actions, most prominently a strike in 2023 against an initiative that would redistribute property taxes. We also saw the participation by many mayors and council heads in the protests against the judicial overhaul. 

The public and political discourse of recent years has persistently dealt with the claims that it is imperative to reshape the relations and balance between the branches of government in Israel and end the concentration of too much power in the hands of one of them. Surprisingly, the discussion deals exclusively with the three branches of national government—the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary—and ignores the status of local government as a sort of fourth branch.

One of the important tasks for a future government will be to redefine the status of local government so that it can serve as an autonomous and independent body, utilizing its structural advantages to provide rapid and efficient public services. In the meantime, it is crucial that the public continue to show confidence in local government, demonstrating that communities are behind the local government and signaling to national leaders the democratic imperative to let local leaders represent communities on the unique issues that impact their lives. Moreover, it is a chance for Israelis to make their voices heard and show up for one of the few bodies providing some semblance of balance to the national government. This week is the perfect opportunity to do so.


This article was published in the Jerusalem Post