Change Will Only Come From Outside Israel's Political System

Don’t wake up on Wednesday expecting anything different from our politicians. That’s not how the system works.

Guy Rolnik
Guy Rolnik
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Tzipi Livni, left, and Isaac Herzog, presenting Zionist Union's party platform at a Tel Aviv press conference in March 2015.
Tzipi Livni, left, and Isaac Herzog, presenting Zionist Union's party platform at a Tel Aviv press conference in March 2015.Credit: Tomer Applebaum
Guy Rolnik
Guy Rolnik

For the first time in 14 years, the elections this month could wind up with the Labor Party (in its latest incarnation as the “Zionist Union”) building the coalition. But the election will change nothing.

Yes, elections are the cornerstone of democracy and the most important tool by which the public can signal the politicians, punish them and reward them. But the process of elections, the day itself and the results are just one part of democracy. The other parts are just as important, but they’re harder to identify and measure, and sometimes fail to gain much attention.

Democracy isn’t gauged solely by how democratic the election process is, the existence of a transparent and inclusive process in which everybody can vote freely. It is also gauged by the desire and ability of the government and Knesset members to supply policy, quality services and regulation of the markets, professionally, substantively and without bias, after the election.

Cradle of democracy

The integrity of the treatment, its professionalism and, mainly, the service the citizen receives at the National Insurance Institute, city hall, health care, education, and so on, influence the legitimacy of the democratic system as much – maybe more – than the conduct of the democratic institutions on election day.

Just look at Greece. The cradle of democracy. It has been on the path of economic, social and political collapse for a decade now, maybe two. Yet throughout, nobody cast doubt on the Greek democratic system. The best proof is the outcome of the last election: the people chose a young party whose ideas had seemed bizarre and antiestablishment to an extreme.

It is, however, clear that the mere existence of democratic elections in Greece does not assure – either in the short or long run – the success of democracy as a tool to improve the lot of the common Greek.

The chances that the government, public sector, regulators and the political and democratic institutions in the cradle of democracy will give the public the service they expect is very remote.

Corruption and atrophy going back many years in the culture, values, norms and leadership; public systems serving mainly organized powerful groups; bankers, tycoons and their hangers-on – none of this will be replaced by a single election. Or two, or three. At best it’s a process. And in Greece’s case, like Italy’s, we may be very far from its end.

Nothing has changed

The 2013 election in Israel is also a prime example. The Knesset gained 48 new members and two new young leaders, Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) in the center and Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) on the right.

But Israelis haven’t generally seen any dramatic change in the services they get from the state. Even on issues such as rising real estate prices, which were a hot topic, absolutely nothing has changed.

There is good reason why elections bring no change. The political system, the government, the broad public sector and regulation in Israel – the democratic and political institutions – are not broken, as many say.

Nor can they be “fixed” overnight by elections. This system has reached an equilibrium that serves the strong players in the economy.

If any change does ensue following any election, it isn’t because of the changing of the guard, so much as the result of deeper changes in society: Perhaps large groups coalesced, of people who feel they aren’t represented and demand change; or perceptions, beliefs and values have changed in a way that enables politicians and the rest of government to make real changes in policy.

Some change like that does occur now and then in Israel, especially since the social protests that began in 2011. These began to change some of the perceptions, norms and priorities in the public discourse.

If there were encouraging changes in food prices under the previous (Netanyahu) government, it was due to the massive pressure exerted by the ideas of the reform on regulators and politicians, well before the election. Politicians adjusted themselves to the powerful public sentiment.

But this is a slow kind of change, which, except in special cases, encountered strong forces who want to preserve the status quo.

This growing gap – between the expectations among Israelis in general, and excluded groups and the disadvantaged in particular – and the results they get after the election is usually attributed to the lack of leadership, or lack of leaders.

Leaders rebut that Israel is a predatory country, or that it loves killing off its leaders. One could think of a different angle on the Israeli “leadership problem,” one a little different from the conventional public discourse about the kind of leadership Israel needs, and the reasons for its absence.

We often confuse the leaders with people in positions of authority and influence. Leaders are not the ones who make tough decisions and execute them; nor are they those with the technical knowledge or charisma to plan and execute complex or difficult steps.

All those matter, but these are generally technical challenges. In contrast, the significant and difficult challenges that leaders in general – and Israel’s leaders in particular – face are more difficult, protracted and complex: To change the behavior, ideas and values of the people they lead – and often those of the public itself the leader is supposed to serve.

Why do the ideas need changing? It is possible to reach peace treaties, evacuate some or all of the settlements, dismantle monopolies, bring back the welfare state, improve the health-care system, invest in education and reduce the cost of living. Just about everyone agree with these ideas.

The answer lies again in the current system that we see before us in the political, economic, social and business spheres, which reflect an equilibrium of all the stakeholders in the system.

Most oppose any real significant change that is proposed – not because people by definition hate change, but mainly because most rightly suspect that, in many cases, the change could hit their pockets, status, dignity or community, prestige, or all together.

Making it personal

We, and this is not necessarily an Israeli trait, like to personalize the social or economic problems we face: If only we get a strong leader, smart, brave, leftist or rightist, merciful or cruel, we will receive the change “we” want to see. And if there are “others” who do not want to see this change, we will ignore them, or maybe they will grasp the magnitude of their error.

This tendency tends to escalate toward elections, as the candidates coo that only they can bring change: “Just not Bibi [Netanyahu],” we’re promised by the left, the press and the interest groups close to them, who tout that changing the government will improve their condition. Only Bibi knows how to handle Iran, Sheldon Adelson and the right say. “With Lieberman, his word is his word”; “Bennett is the only one who won’t apologize”; Livni will bring peace; Lapid works for the middle class; and Herzog or Trajtenberg will bring back the welfare state.

This personalization is very attractive and is, interestingly, shared not only by the general public but by most intellectuals and opinion formers and liberals, who sometimes feel the country has been taken away from them, but they’ll “get it back” in the next election.

Attractive as it may be, this attitude may also prevent us from examining the system as a whole: who comprises it? Who really exerts the most force on it? What are the ideas, the beliefs, the concepts, the culture, the norms and the values imbued in it (and on which it relies)? And what are the losses that the interested parties foresee when they think about change?

We may then find that many who purport to seek change actually prefer the status quo, and are prepared to accept change only if it improves their personal situation or serves their “group” and loyalties.

An interesting expression of this can be seen in Israel’s defense chiefs, who preserve the status quo when they’re in power, only adopting a rhetoric of change when they leave or are ousted from the system.

Changing beliefs and behavior takes time. First, the real disputes, interests and power networks beneath the top players need to be outed. But that’s just the start. Then, priorities, alternatives and what they mean need to be presented. This will usually require a leader who really wants to change the equilibrium, to shed old loyalties – including to those who put him in power. This process of learning, discussion, choices and change cannot be exclusive to the elite of decision makers.

This process could be led by a politician. Which is precisely my point: the chance of that happening looks slim.

No politician in the existing system is heading in that direction. They’d rather describe the system as broken; mark an enemy or two they vow to “handle”; and promise that if you give them the power, they will reorganize the economy or Middle East for you.

Zionist Union coleader Isaac Herzog provided a good example last week, though his party should, more than others, deliver a message of healing rifts and rehabilitating social capital if he wants to reach government.

In response to the depressing and frightening Israir video that showed violence by passengers against the air crew, Herzog said the one responsible for these phenomena is Netanyahu. That is, the violence, perhaps brutalization, the absence of boundaries, coarse language, freedom to lash out and vent in public, are, in his opinion, a new thing that began with the current prime minister.

Weak leaders

Just as Lapid marked the ultra-Orthodox out as the source of all Israel’s problems in society and the economy, and as Netanyahu wants to sell the public on the threat of a new Haman in Persia, so Herzog wants to sell us a local Haman whose reelection, time and again, reflects, in his opinion, not a deep equilibrium in Israeli culture, values or societal or economic structure, but just a blip, or a broken system.

Externalizing the problem or personalizing it reflect weakness in our leaders, an inability or lack of desire to embark on the long, painful process of changing the set of concepts, beliefs, arrangements, agreements and loyalties of the tribes, interest groups and sects in Israel.

The election on Tuesday could signal that the public’s beliefs and being have changed.

But disappointment with the results of the 2013 election, which did shake up the political system, show that the real process of change – enabling change in policy, too – will be a slow one, not some transformation on the day after we vote.

Leadership that can achieve change will apparently have to come from outside the political system, because nobody in government or opposition genuinely wants it.

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