The Cult of Personality in Israeli Politics

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Israeli voters are increasingly influenced by the personality of the party head rather than by the party's ideology. In this op-ed, written before the 2013 Knesset elections, Prof. Gideon Rahat, head of IDI's Political Reform project, shares his thoughts on the cult of personality in Israeli politics.

Bibi or Bennett? Tzipi or Shelly? And what about Yair? The personalization of politics is a process in which the weight of individual politicians grows, while the weight of political groups, such as parties, decreases. This personalization process can be expressed through changes in democratic institutions. In Israeli politics, personalization can be seen in the growing adoption of methods of candidate selection such as primaries, which emphasize personal competition, or mechanisms that entrust the selection of the Knesset list to a single leader.

Personalization of politics is also prevalent in the Israeli media, which has been downplaying political parties increasingly since the 1980s, emphasizing individual candidates—and especially party leaders—instead. Israeli election campaigns also increasingly shine the spotlight on the party leader rather than the party.

Changes in the rules of the political game and in the nature of media coverage lead to changes in the behavior of politicians. Party initiatives are increasingly replaced by individual initiatives, as can be seen from the dramatic increase in the number of private member bills submitted to the Knesset. Thousands of such bills have been submitted to the Knesset in recent years, in contrast to dozens or perhaps a few hundred that have been submitted in other parliamentary democracies during the same period of time.

All these changes, in turn, affect voters, who are increasingly influenced by their perception of the party leader when they go to the polls. More and more, their decisions are influenced by the party head rather than by the party's ideology and cadre of politicians.

In comparison to other parliamentary democracies, the personalization of politics is particularly evident in Israel, despite the fact that Israel's main government institutions are based on cooperation between parties. The Israeli parliamentary system is based on parties, not on individuals. It is the party—not the candidates or even the party head—that Israel's proportional representation system, with its closed lists, presents to the voters on the electoral day of judgment. Nonetheless, public discourse today focuses on the question of "Who are you voting for, Bibi or Shelly, Zehava or Tzipi?" Perhaps this is a remnant from the failed system of the direct election of the prime minister, which was in force between 1996 and 2001; perhaps it is yet another sign of the much derided Americanization of Israeli politics; and perhaps it is an indicator of changes in Israeli culture and the media. While there are signs that this process of increasing personalization and parallel decrease in the emphasis on political parties is also taking place in other parliamentary democracies, in Israel these two processes are especially acute and extreme.

There always has been a personal element in politics and always will be. Even in democracies—not just in dictatorships—we remember leaders who were outstanding and others who failed. However, democracy is a system of laws that does not depend on a specific person. An extreme emphasis on the personal in politics may threaten democracy. This is because personal politics lends itself to empty promises; indeed, history is full of accounts of the rise and fall of a reigning "messiah." In an even blacker scenario, personal politics may lead to personal dictatorship.

The need for united and functional parties that can provide a basis for action and can support leadership in the face of challenges was true even of David Ben-Gurion, whose tenure as head of the Yishuv began in the 1930s and who served as prime minister almost continuously from 1948 to 1963. When Ben-Gurion headed Mapai, the forerunner of the Labor party, he was able to found and establish the State of Israel; when he abandoned the party, he soon found himself in the political wilderness. Today's leaders also need strong parties to support them. In democracies today, as in the past, citizens need vibrant parties that will represent them; they need political bodies that have identities, visions, and plans that transcend the individuals who compose them.

The trend of establishing new parties centered around a specific individual, as in the case of Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni's Hatnua, is not new. But whereas this phenomenon used to be limited to parties on the radical right, today it has spread to the center and center-left. Parties are cobbled together by people who have already ordered their ministerial wardrobe—parties of elitists who see themselves as destined not to serve the people as Knesset members but rather to run the country. These parties are run undemocratically and revolve entirely around their leaders and elites. They have no substance beyond these personalities.

What, then, can be done? On the institutional level, we must not make the mistake of changing the system of government and reverting back to the monstrous failure of direct elections of the prime minister. What can be done, though, is to reel the cult of personality back into the context of the party by adopting a ballot system that would incorporate a personal component in party politics. If citizens could tick off specific candidates of the parties they vote for—and not only the party itself—on election day, their choice of person and party would be combined. If this system were to be adopted, candidates could no longer win a higher place on the party list merely thanks to the votes of people who register for a party so as to vote in its primaries and then vote for another party in the Knesset election.

In addition, parties should be encouraged and required to spend less money on shallow election propaganda and to focus more on meaningful ideological activities. They should also be rewarded for conducting their internal politics democratically. In return for the state regulating intraparty democratic procedures, such as leader and candidate selection, they should receive funding that will enable them to conduct internal democratic processes, rather than receiving criticism for irregularities after the fact.
Citizens also have a role to play here. They must express their dissatisfaction with personal politics. They must assert their right to be heard inside the party and to share their ideas, a process that can be facilitated by new or existing technological platforms. They must demand that their needs are addressed and that their values and interests are represented, rather than engaging in gossip and worship of party leaders. Personal politics is not "new politics"; it is the old politics of kingdoms and royal courts, of gossip, intrigue, and personal relationships. The real new politics combines new and time-tested ideas. It must be played out within democratic parties and be internalized by them, so that they become a strong basis for sound governance.

Politicians must also play their part. Veteran politicians should remain in their old parties and try to change them from the inside. They need to know how to lose. Just as we encourage our children to be good losers, politicians must accept their losses, stay in their parties, and try to change them from within, rather than setting up new parties. Similarly, talented new candidates such as Yair Lapid should join existing parties, breathe new life into them, and change them, rather than reinventing the wheel in the form of a "new party"—a solution that has failed repeatedly.
The individual is the basic unit of liberal democracy. According to this doctrine, all individuals are equal, and all individuals together, as a collective, are sovereign. The representatives of the people are also individuals, but they are individuals who must work together. Successful democratic politics is not a solo performance; it is a concert by many musicians who must play in harmony. The conductor of this ensemble is their leader, and while not playing themselves, conductors know how to orchestrate others harmoniously and successfully. 

Prof. Gideon Rahat is Research Director of IDI's Political Reform Project and Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Report on January 22, 2013.