If Most Israelis Are in Favor of Good Things, Why Do So Few Get Accomplished?

The destructive dynamics of Israeli politics gives incentives to politicians to make unfulfillable promises.

Ilan Assayag

This column was written while the polling stations were still open, which makes it a bit difficult to congratulate the winners, console the losers or take satisfaction from their loss.

It is even harder to try to guess how the next government will look, and exactly what it will do. But there is one thing that is easy to write in any situation and after every outcome: the agenda that the new government needs. Nothing is easier. It is so easy that it is depressing to see why it doesn’t happen.

As opposed to the disagreements that were exposed during the election campaign between the parties and within them, and between political blocs and within them; and as opposed to the personal rivalries and hatred between politicians – it seems it would be easy for the economic, social and even security and diplomatic agenda to actually win a majority in Israel. Most of the public wants peace and a diplomatic agreement, most of the public is in favor of lowering the cost of living, most of the public wants a sane and progressive country, most of the public is in favor of the Israeli democracy, in favor of reducing inequality and taking care of the weaker populations. Most of the public is in favor of equal rights and responsibilities between all the groups that make up Israeli heterogeneraty.

So if most of us are in favor of this menu, how is it that we are unable to implement even a small part of this? In order to understand the answer we need to go back two years.

The day after the elections in 2013, we published a shopping list here of things the new government needed to do. We talked about the need to deal with the housing market, lower the cost of living, promote sharing the military burden equally, reduce social inequality in the health system and government services, rein in the defense budget, advance the light rail project in Tel Aviv, encourage entrepreneurship and investment, and of course advance a peace agreement. Was that too much? Was it a fantasy? After all, what were we asking for?

And a new government was formed that tried to provide answers to some of those problems - for example in the healthcare system. As opposed to issues such as sharing the burden or a peace agreement, which are in constant political dispute, here there was need for there to be a problem. The same goes for other matters like the subway for Tel Aviv, cost of living or real estate market. These are problems that affect the entire population, and not any specific group.

Former Health Minister Yael German established a committee, which sat for many months and came up with recommendations for a more public health system that would solve some of the system’s illnesses. All this work went for naught with the end of the last government and the firing of the ministers from Yesh Atid. This is how the public interest was abandoned just because of political rivalry, and not for any other reason. This is a relatively easy example, since there was no real dispute between the coalition parties over it. It could have been completed. But the political leader has not yet been born who will promote the idea of his rival - and so the health system and its problems will wait for its next minister.

As for the handling of the housing market we saw bitter disagreements - and therefore the problem only got worse. Finance Minister Yair Lapid proposed his plan for zero value added tax on inexpensive apartments for first time home buyers; while Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel promoted his own plan for setting lower target prices for apartments in new land tenders. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked on from the sidelines as if it didn’t concern him at all. The result was the continued failure of government policy in the housing sector. Instead of working together in order to advance the public’s interests, every party came with its own agenda, sabotaged the work of all the other parties and harmed the public.

It is possible to give the various parties credit and say they came with good intentions - but something in the political dynamics, the system and the map of power leads in the end to same miserable results of destruction and failure. The failure in the housing market is especially large, since it is almost completely dependent on the work of the government.

It is the government that controls almost all of the land in Israel, all the stages of planning and zoning and the issuing of permits. There are no real opponents who will riot if the government increases the supply of land for construction or makes the planning and building permit processes more efficient. It is not similar to the struggle for sharing the burden equally for military service, which has so upset the Haredim; or the proposals to cut the defense budget, which immediately leads the entire defense junta to mobilize for battle. Here there is no party that is willing to lay its life down to prevent an increased supply of housing - but nonetheless it hasn’t happened.

The unavoidable conclusion is that our elected representatives are unable, unwilling or don’t know how to supply the goods: They get an “F” grade for their ability to carry through and work together on behalf of the public. We saw during the election campaign that just ended how the parties blame each other for the failure. Naftali Bennett blames Lapid, Lapid blames Netanyahu, and he blames Tzipi Livni. This is something they are good at. Really good.

Is there a way to prevent a repeat of this dynamic in the new government? This is a question that needs to be tested as of today, when the job of putting together the new coalition starts - however it turns out. It would seem that we, the public, did our job on Election Day. we put our ballots in the ballot box, and we are ready to defend our choice and justify it. In another day or two we will sink back into our own affairs and wait patiently for those we elected to really do what they promised us. It would not be a rather big gamble to say that if we sink back into our own affairs - nothing will really happen.

No politician will advance the solution to any problem if public pressure is not applied to them. Every politician turns into a different state of matter as of today from what they were yesterday: They turn overnight from an enthusiastic salesman to a Knesset member or minister, who needs to survive in the political and public system. You might think that doing things on behalf of the public would be an excellent recipe for political survival, and even for advancement. But that is only true in theory. The daily affairs of a politician - minister of member of Knesset - are composed of a few more things, such as party considerations and interest groups that push them into corners.

The politician is afraid of confrontations with powerful groups, and sometimes they also lack the knowledge or a clear vision. The incentive to battle on behalf of someone is not always apparent - and after all every change and real work requires fighting and a heavy personal price in the short term.