The Politics of Politics

With a certain degree of cynicism, it's possible to say that something encouraging is happening within Israeli society. There is an increasing number of Israelis who understand, and especially who feel, that the political system is in poor condition and only deteriorating further. This deterioration has intensified in recent months, following the establishment of the current government, but it was already set in motion during previous governments.

In actual fact, Israel is a Jewish-ethnic democracy that keeps many of its citizens from influencing policy - the heart of democracy and politics. Israeli democracy is a democracy in formal terms only; that is to say, freedom of speech exists to a certain extent, and general and local elections are held, but the public's degree of participation is constantly decreasing due to their political apathy.

Such elections ensure only superficial representation. The government's policy remains fixed without participation or massive influence from the citizens; the Knesset passes legislation, only on the face of it according to the will of the general public - the true sovereign which is the body of all the citizens, but in actual fact according to the vested interests of its members; and the legal system hands down judgment on various issues without conceptual consistency.

At the base of the problem is the fact that Israeli democracy is controlled by very few politicians, a senior bureaucracy that has too much power, a small number of wealthy people, and a defense establishment extraordinarily dominant compared with that seen among other nations.

A number of attempts have been made in the past to propose reforms that would improve the situation. Five years ago, the "President Katsav Committee" was set up, headed by the president of the Hebrew University at the time, Prof. Menachem Magidor, and with the participation of many dozens of politicians, economists, academics and social figures; it had several subcommittees (I was a member of its steering committee and the head of a subcommittee). The committee, which functioned for some two years, concentrated on the formal and organizational aspects of the political system - that is to say, the system of governance, the electoral system, the structure of the Knesset, the relations between the Knesset and the government, and so forth. It presented very detailed recommendations discussed by the relevant Knesset committees and the government but, as could be expected of the Israeli political system, almost all of them failed to be implemented.

A few days ago, the Israel Democracy Institute set up its Forum for Political Reform, headed by former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar. It will consist of some 100 members - including Knesset members, retired judges, public figures, academics and leading figures from the business world. As with previous committees, the aim of the forum is to put together concrete proposals for changing the electoral system, the structure of the parties and their functioning within the political system, and to make the functioning of the Knesset and its interactions with the government more effective. In other words, the emphasis is once again on institutional and organizational aspects as well as the formal processes of the Israeli political system.

Defective political culture

There is a certain importance to addressing these issues, but the chances that changing them will improve the political situation is close to zero. In order to really effect an improvement, one must concentrate on the defective political culture in Israel. This is the main source of the regime's defective functioning, which includes the ineffectual functioning of both the legislative and the executive branches.

Israel's political culture is characterized, among other things, by a lack of respect toward many minority groups, including Israeli Arabs, women, homosexuals, some of the ultra-Orthodox public, and others; by a lack of respect for the law on the part of politicians, bureaucrats and the general public; by increasing violence; by a great deal of corruption at all government levels; by lack of consideration for others; by failure to respect the rights of individuals as well as social and political groups; and by the furthering of personal interests on the part of those with political clout and money.

This situation stems from the following: deep processes of individualization in society and a lessening of the commitment toward the general public; apathy and a decline in political participation after numerous citizens find themselves in dire social and economic straits, in the wake of successive governments' abandonment of welfare-state principles; a devaluation - to almost nil - of the importance of ideology within public and political life; the hope for a strong leader; and a yearning for undemocratic elements within the political system.

The basic problems of Israeli democracy will not be solved by switching from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, or via changes in the electoral system, or by forbidding MKs to serve as cabinet ministers. On the contrary - reforms of this kind will merely serve to exacerbate the administration's serious problems.

The only solution is to strengthen democratic culture by educating toward democracy and tolerance. Unless the importance of agreeing on basic democratic rules and the need to intensify the public's ongoing participation in crucial political processes is inculcated, we can expect further erosion to the country's democratic regime.

What can be done? The activity of third-sector and non-profit organizations must be encouraged; corruption and the connections between capital and government must be fought to the finish; the intervention of the defense establishment in social, cultural, political and economic fields not directly connected to it must cease; a critical political culture must be developed and open public debates must be held on Israel's internal and external security problems; and especially, education on democracy must be greatly intensified in formal and informal educational frameworks, such as youth movements and civic social organizations.

The author teaches Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.