National and Local Politics

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The distinction between local and national politics is a relatively new phenomenon in Israel. In this article, which was originally published in Hebrew in IDI's online journal Parliament, Ms. Naomi Himeyn-Raisch examines the development of Israeli local politics. She discusses voting patterns, citizen participation in the decision making process and political activism as each relates to local politics and concludes that residents, but primarily local authorities, may not be ready for a vast decentralization of power.

Local government in Israel is still in the process of shaping its identity and defining its role in national politics. The strong, concentrated and centralized form of government established in the earliest days of the State has molded patterns of behavior that remain well ingrained even today, although slightly modified. Local government is not independent. The Ministry of Interior, whose powers have, in fact, expanded greatly beyond those provided in the statutes, wields significant control over local authorities. The dependence of local authorities on the national government has also had partisan manifestations. For many years, representatives of the political parties' central committees have run for local elections, thus, ensuring their party's control in the local arena. Through local elections, outstanding party activists are groomed and the way is paved for future politicians at the national level.

Until the middle of the seventies, local politics was overshadowed by national party politics. Since then, local politics have begun to develop independently and to focus on local affairs. The increasing vitality of local politics is reflected in the growing strength of independent parties and candidates as compared with the lists of party candidates. It is also manifested in the increased involvement of citizens in local initiatives and the consolidation of local civic activity, although the prominent pattern is still one of initiatives by the upper echelons. This article examines these developments.

During the period of Jewish settlement in British mandated Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the local authorities enjoyed great autonomy and the leaders of the national institutions encouraged their independent development because under the Mandate laws, Jews were only officially permitted to manage the local affairs of their communities. (Elazar, 2001: 6-8). The powers of the local authorities were manifested in dealing with local matters and coping with the particular issues and problems of the local residents.

The importance of local matters in local politics was already considerable during this period as demonstrated in the debates, which preceded the first municipal elections in Tel Aviv in 1921 (and caused their postponement). These disputes reflected a reality in which an assortment of people from diverse neighborhoods with unique characteristics was consolidated in one judicial area. The burning, divisive issues on the local party agenda were not about national party ideology, but rather about questions of concern only to the residents, such as the rise in apartment rent, local taxes, etc. The controversial issues raised in the national election campaigns were of a different nature: should there be a proportional system of elections by city or by region according to neighborhood? Who will have the right to vote? Who is entitled to be elected? The right to vote was perhaps the most heated topic of debate. The workers' faction demanded that everyone be entitled to vote, whereas urban property owners demanded restricting participation in elections according to the following criteria: payment of taxes, a minimal period of residency and Israeli citizenship under the British Mandate. In the end, it was decided that each region would elect a number of representatives proportional to the number of eligible voters in each neighborhood; that every person over the age of 20 who paid at least 50 grush to the municipality would have the right to vote; and that anyone over the age of 24 who spoke, wrote and read Hebrew, and who had resided in the city for at least six months would be eligible to be elected.

The newly established State took local government under its wings, taking over most of its authority. Except for operational authority, even the local parties were transferred to the control of the national party institutions, which set their agenda and selected their candidates. However, in 1973, the local parties' branches began a process of disengagement from their central committees. The rise of a generation of young leadership and the inclusion of new immigrants resulted in greater local party activity and reinforced their authority: local branches began to operate independently and to conduct coalition negotiations themselves. In light of this change, the parties' central committees did not enter into confrontation with the local branches, but rather relaxed their control of the selection of the list of candidates for the municipal council elections. The local branches, on their part, tried not to engage in too many activities that would be liable to provoke strong opposition by the national party institutions. (Elazar, 29:2001).

The ability to differentiate between local politics and national politics developed gradually, however, even at an early stage, the municipalities served as a relatively open door to politics for new groups (youth, new immigrants). As early as 1967, approximately half of the publicly elected officials and senior clerks were immigrants from North African and Asia, and similarly, a few decades later, the initial political organization of the wave of Russian immigration took place in the local arena. (Elazar, 25:2001).

Thus, local government provided an opportunity to assimilate groups that would otherwise have had difficulty integrating, and these groups gave rise to local leadership independent of the national leadership. For example, Shas, which was established to represent the Mizrahi communities, began as a local list formed in 1982 for the Jerusalem municipal elections. Two years later, it presented its candidates in the 11th Knesset elections. Likewise, the Pensioner's Party, which took us by surprise in the most recent Knesset elections, began as a list with modest aspirations in the Tel Aviv municipal elections. As far back as 2003, the list prospered well beyond expectations in the local elections by garnering six seats on the city council. Incidentally, even then, an interesting trend appeared – numerous young people were among its supporters.

An additional expression of the growing separation between national and local governments was the voting pattern. Residents voted according to different considerations in the local elections and in the national elections, which, of course, led to different results. The ability to differentiate between elections at diverse levels of government and to vote for local authorities, which are not necessarily in line with their votes for the Knesset, demonstrates a rise in the importance of local issues in the eyes of the electorate (Elazar, 2001:26-27). It also reflects a greater independence of judgment and the understanding that maintaining party loyalty on a national level is not necessarily in the voters' best interests in the local arena, where ideology plays a less important role. This pattern received institutional support in the 1978 elections when the decision was made to hold municipal and national elections on different dates.

The separation of the national and local elections was also manifested in the disparate election results and the lack of synchronization of the party's success at the national level and at the regional level. In the 2003 elections, Shas won representation in 18% of the municipal elections, but 9% of the representatives in the 16th Knesset; that is, it enjoyed twice as large a representation at the local level than at the national level. Mafdal won representation in the municipal elections that was 2.4 times the percentage it won nationally – 12% of the local election ballots versus 5% of the Knesset votes (Tessler, 2005: 1,170). Notwithstanding, the differences in voting patterns between Knesset and municipal elections, local elections still serve as a measure of the strength of the major parties. Indeed, the success of the Likud Party in the 2003 elections (based on the total number of seats that it won to achieve the majority) reflected its status as the party in command of the national government at that time (Shapira 2005: 1,191).

It seems that one of the prominent trends in local politics today is the advancement of local independent lists of candidates. Since the eighties, the number of lists that do not identify with any national party has increased. In the 1998 elections, the number was double what it had been in 1978 (Goldberg, 2001: 264). In the most recent elections in 2003, the local lists received 52% of the votes in the municipal council elections as compared to 44% in 1998. Concurrently, the power of the two ruling parties (Labor and Likud) significantly diminished from 72.8% of the votes at its height in 1965 to a mere 16% in the 2003 elections. This trend is even more striking in the mayoral elections, in which candidates on the independent lists won 63% of the total votes in all the municipalities, such as Ron Huldai in Tel Aviv, Zvi Zikler in Ashdod and Roni Mahatzri in Ashkelon. The mayor of Beer Sheva, Yaakov Terner, was elected on a local list, but with the support of the Labor Party. It is interesting that the success of the local lists, which is not comparable in all the municipalities, is characteristic of the more established communities (Brichta, 2005: 978-979).

Although the independence of the candidates and the local parties is manifest, the national parties' influence on the appointment of candidates for mayor is still considerable in spite of the democratization of the electoral process and the adoption of a primary system for the selection of candidates. Thus, for example, just before the 1993 Haifa elections, the Labor Party leaders were concerned that the incumbent mayor, Arie Gur'el, would lose the elections. In order to replace him with Amram Mitzna, the party declared open primaries (open to anyone and not just to party members), which resulted in Mitzna's election. In other instances, committees that were set up to intervene on behalf of the national party institutions prevented primaries from being held (Goldberg, 2001: 254 – 255).

Over the years, local politics has successfully found its place and has fashioned an independent political existence. Both the parties and the voters are interested in quality of life issues and have put aside questions concerning national ideology. However, have residents begun to take greater interest in local political activity concurrently with the increased activity of the local lists? Apparently not – although the reduced scope of local politics provides the residents with more opportunities to wield some influence, it appears that this is not the only variable that encourages civic participation.

The nation's citizens are also citizens of the municipalities in which they reside, and their lives are often more affected by decisions taken by the local authorities than by the Knesset. The local authorities shape the daily existence and the quality of life of the citizens, and the local issues of concern to residents differ from the national issues that concern them. For instance, environmental issues are more predominant in local politics because they directly affect the inhabitants' lives. Questions concerning the planning and maintenance of sewage lines and buildings, and concerning illegal landfills, which preoccupy those living in close proximity to such hazards, are practical, not ideological. Small businesses are also affected by the decisions of the local authority, which are, therefore, likely to be of more interest to them as well as to consumers, who are interested in the benefits of organized shopping centers as opposed to peddlers because they may have a negative impact on the character of their neighborhood.

Although local democracy is also representational democracy, theoretically, it allows more  possibilities for civic participation because of the greater opportunity for close contact between the residents and the decision makers, as well as because the smaller framework facilitates conducting open discussions without impairing their effectiveness.

Urban civics is characterized by two patterns – participation and involvement. Participation is a process that is initiated at the "common level" and moves upwards to a higher "official level" in which citizens are prepared to invest their time to advance public objectives. Involvement, on the other hand, is a process of governmental activity that works from the top down, and is measured by the tools that the government grants its citizens to encourage them to take part in local politics. The involvement model is more common in Israel.

Involvement in urban planning is an example of public involvement pursuant to the Planning and Building Law[, 5725-1965], according to which the municipality must provide citizens with information about future construction plans so that anyone who thinks that he or she will be harmed by the building plans may file an objection with the authority. This type of involvement is a clear example of a situation in which the government provides information and opens a channel for citizens to respond. However, this is involvement that is solicited after the fact, and not during the planning process itself. The residents do not participate in the decision-making process, may not propose recommendations and solutions, and cannot even voice their objections before a decision is rendered (Blander Waxman, 2002: 34-35).

The rationale for such limited participation is based on the centralized administrative culture that prevails in Israel and on the fact that citizens lack the relevant knowledge required to participate in the decision-making process. In addition to an objective lack of knowledge, the residents do not feel that they understand urban planning issues. This impression reinforces the position of the professional politicians, who become immune to criticism by the residents. The politicians, for their part, are not inclined to change the situation and even obstruct civic initiatives that originate in the neighborhoods. Consequently, citizens tend to become suspicious of the intentions of the public figures and to doubt that they are acting in the interest of the general welfare (Blander Waxman, 2002: 38-39).

Accordingly, there are gaps between the mayors' views concerning the nature of active citizenship and those of the residents. Research conducted by Yishai revealed that mayors present a picture of active citizenship through channels of participation in the municipality that are open to the residents, who are aware of the activities of the municipalities and who are familiar with those who have initiated them. In contrast, the residents report that the channels of participation are not open to them and that their involvement is minimal. Nevertheless, both residents and mayors assert that they value and support the participatory nature of democracy and believe that this is the preferable path of action at the local level.  This indicates that there is a gap between the values of the residents and the politicians and their actual conduct: Citizens believe that they do not have the ability to influence local politics and that they lack the skills required to do so, while the mayors are ready to involve the residents, mainly in the form of involvement directed from above, and not in participation initiated from below (Yishai, 2005: 998-999).

Civic involvement also has its shortcomings, which should not be trivialized. The first disadvantage is the unequal nature of involvement. It appears that economically stronger populations tend to be more involved in civic activity than weaker socio-economic populations. Accordingly, civic involvement in the planning process also reflects social gaps, and these patterns of participation persist throughout the municipal channels in which the affluent residents take part and voice their opinions, while the disadvantaged residents remain silent. Thus, the affluent play a dominant role in the local arena.

Another disadvantage concerns work schedules and efficiency. Involvement by citizens in the planning process is liable to delay, complicate and even bring it to a standstill should a consensus among residents not be achieved. Although tension between representation and efficiency always exists and is characteristic of every local and national political system, when residents, and not just their representatives, take part, the tension is even more pronounced.

Over the course of the State of Israel's existence, a distinction between national politics and local politics has emerged. Although officially, the local authorities remain dependent upon the national government ministries, they have an independent dynamic. This is manifest in the rise of local leadership, in the disengagement of the local parties from the national parties' central committees, as well as in the proliferation of independent lists and candidates unaffiliated with any national party.

The citizens themselves have also learned to differentiate between their local interests and their national interests. Consequently, they do vote for the same party in municipal elections as they vote for in the Knesset elections. Nevertheless, despite the growing interest in local politics, this still does not translate into greater political activism and participation in the decision-making process. It seems that not only the residents, but perhaps also primarily the local authorities, are still not ready for this type of decentralization of powers given that the channels enabling participation remain limited and directed from above.

Blander, Dana and Efrat Waxman, 2002. Models of Civic Involvement, Jerusalem: The Israel Democracy Institute.

Brichta, Avraham, 2005. "Introduction: Domination by Independent Lists in Local Government in Israel", State and Society, 5 (1): 977-984.

Elazar, Daniel J., 2001. "The Local Dimension of Government and Politics in Israel", Local Government in Israel, Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: 1-38.

Goldberg, Giora, 2001. "Changes in Israeli Voter Behavior in Elections for Local Government", Local Government in Israel, Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: 249-275.

Karni, Yuval, "The Elders of Tel Aviv", YNET, October 30, 2003:,7340,L-2809979,00.html
Shapira, Boaz, 2005. "National Decline, Local Rise: Reflections on Elections for Local Authorities", State and Society 5 (1): 1,185-1,194.

Tessler, Riki, 2005. "The Gush Emuni Bloc in Municipal Elections 2003: Formation, Penetration and Effect", State and Society, 5(1): 1,147-1,182.

Yishai, Yael, 2005. "Urban Citizenship in Israel: Between Involvement and Partnership", State and Society, 5(1): 985-1,004.