Israel's Political Parties: Strengthen the Party, not the Cult of Personality

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Personalization of politics is on the rise in Israel. While this trend can also be found in other countries, it is more extreme in Israel and has grave consequences. Prof. Gideon Rahat, Director of Research of IDI's Political Reform project, recommends several changes that can help strengthen Israel's political parties and restore them to reasonable performance.

One of the main features of Israeli politics in recent decades is its personalization—that is, the individual carries increasing weight while the weight of the political parties is on the decline. This trend toward personalization can be seen in the nature of Israel's political institutions (direct elections, primaries, leader-based parties such as Israel Beiteinu), in the nature of Israeli media coverage (which focuses on the head of the party rather than the party itself), in the behavior of the legislators (who, for example, submit a ridiculously large number of private bills), and in the behavior of the voters (who say things such as "I voted for Bibi/ Tzipi/ Yvette/ Ehud" rather than referring to the party). This trend can also be found in other countries, but it seems to be more extreme in Israel. And it comes with a heavy price.

A political system cannot be based on individual players. Politics is a group activity. Political leaders must lead a team. Political parties have always existed and will continue to exist because every political move in a democracy requires coordination and consolidation of a supportive majority. It is true that democratic politics can be conducted by assembling a new majority for each individual issue. But this is inefficient and does not allow citizens to closely follow politicians (whether or not they are inclined to do so). Political parties are necessary as a kind of shortcut, which presents citizens with a line of thinking and a general plan of policies and world views. Even an impressive and nonpartisan popular protest will fail if its message is not adopted by political parties.

So what can be done? How do we get the parties to return to reasonable performance in the current era? The answer is that through legislation and regulations, it is possible to change quite a bit.

First, a deal should be made with the democratic parties: They will receive funding for internal democratic elections in exchange for thorough regulation. This requires no additional expense, as it is possible to change the way the generous party funding that already exists in Israel is allocated. Currently, Israel's democratic parties are plagued both by corruption and by its detection. In contrast, the non-democratic parties—those in which a single leader or group of oligarchs selects the head of the party and its candidates for Knesset—seem to be doing better (although who knows what may be going on behind closed doors?).

Second, there is room for intervention in the way party funding is allocated, so that part of it is designated for ideological activity and it is not spent almost exclusively on campaign professionals. After all, politics is a serious matter.

Third, changes in the internal selection methods of the parties should be considered, such that the party controls the screening of candidates before they compete in the primaries. This is the norm when primaries take place in Europe: Candidates compete in open primaries for the votes of party members (and occasionally for the votes of party supporters as well) only after being subject to internal vetting within the party.

Finally, we should consider changing the electoral system so that it will formally incorporate personal politics into party politics. That is, the decision about who will fill the party's seats will be in the hands of the party and its voters (rather than in the hands of people who temporarily register for the party in order to vote in its primaries). This can be achieved by adopting a semi-open ballot system that presents the candidates for the party's Knesset list on the ballot itself. In this method, the voter can either ratify the order of the candidates on the list as submitted by the party or can vote for the candidates of his or her choice. If enough voters support a candidate who appears relatively low on the list, that candidate will be elected to the Knesset. Thus, personal politics will be conducted within the party list rather than separately. This is in contrast to the current situation in Israel, in which primaries are subject to manipulation from all sides.

Anyone examining the rise and fall of Ben Gurion will notice a particularly important and interesting fact: Ben Gurion was an effective leader for as long as he had the support of a large and powerful party. Without the party's support, even this giant leader lost his clout.


Prof. Gideon Rahat is a Senior Researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Hebrew University.