Israel is a state facing significant “wicked” challenges, both as a result of developments in its region and in its internal arena. Addressing them will require deft, steady, and courageous political leadership. The problem is that, according to the Israeli public and to former Israeli Cabinet Ministers and senior officials I met with recently, this kind of leadership is in short supply.
This past month, the Israel Democracy Institute published its annual Israeli Democratic Index for 2017, based on a wide-ranging survey of public opinion in Israel. This year’s findings were mixed. A majority of Israelis continue to believe in democracy and Israelis rank high on the OECD scale for political involvement and do not appear to be disengaging from political discourse and activity. However, the survey shows deep distrust and disdain for politicians and political institutions. About 64 percent of the general public believes the government does not deal well with the country’s central problems. Some 65 percent of the general public believes politicians are out of sync with their constituents’ problems and needs, and 68 percent feel that members of Knesset do not work hard and do not perform their duties properly. Around 80 percent believe politicians are more concerned with their own personal interests than with the interests of their constituents. The level of trust in the government is only 29 percent, in the Knesset 26 percent, and in the political parties 15 percent (ranking first is the IDF with 81 percent, then the President with 65 percent). A majority of Israelis (both Jewish and Arab) believe that Israel is not a true democracy since the very rich influence government decisions in their favor and against the interests of ordinary people. A large majority feels that their ability to influence government policy is very low or nonexistent.
Israel’s politicians have to a large extent earned this disdain. A seemingly never-ending stream of corruption allegations, investigations, trials, and convictions involving local and national politicians pours forth. One former Prime Minister and one former President were recently released from prison. The most recent investigation engulfed the coalition chairman in the Knesset and a key ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, David Bitan, who resigned from his post, though not from the Knesset. These, added to ongoing investigations against the Prime Minister himself and his close associates (three at last count), have helped bring half of Israelis to see their leadership as corrupt (despite the fact that it fares relatively well in international comparisons, such as that of Transparency International).
My talks with the former senior officials showed that this sense of the debasement of the calling of politics in Israel is prevalent not only among the public, but also among elite members (not only from the opposition) as well. I wanted to talk about the structures and processes of the policymaking apparatus, but time and again my interlocutors returned to the point that these are much less important to the policy outputs than the quality of the people. “Process is not everything; you need leadership”, in the words of one former Minister. They kept returning to the point that, while the officials and officers who man the system are excellent, see themselves as servants of the state, and provide whatever stability the system has, the same cannot be said for most elected officials. As one former Minister said to me regarding the political level, “the human capital is limited.”
One reason for the current state of affairs is that over the past quarter century the two traditional major parties—Likud and Labor (now called the Zionist Union)—adopted “primaries,” or election by registered party members to the party list for Knesset rather by the party leadership. As in the United States, the primary system strengthened the prospects of colorful, populist figures, whose rhetoric and political positions appeal to the base rather than to the population as a whole. However, in Israel’s proportional representation system, the public only votes for the party as a whole, not for individual candidates, so the “bottom of the list” can get into the legislature if the top of the list enjoys wide support. Small constituencies with strong vested interests, as well as “bosses” who control blocs of votes, can control primary outcomes: Only about 5 percent of Likud and Zionist Union voters participate in their party’s primaries. The system thus militates against more moderate, experienced figures who tend to eschew populist or extremist positions. It has also encouraged Knesset members to submit “private member bills” (about 30,000 since 2000), only a tiny minority of which have been approved and passed into law, in order to satisfy their constituencies and gain wider recognition.1
In the ruling party, some of the most well-known, experienced, and respected political figures from Likud’s past “did not pass the screen test” of the primaries. As a result, Prime Minister Netanyahu is now to the left of his own party and his coalition. Primaries have pulled the Likud to the right, causing it to bring forth or support, often in the name of “governability” (Israeli shorthand for unalloyed majority rule), legislation that the majority of the people (including half of Jews and 75 percent of Arabs) see as undemocratic. As one former Minister told me, “the crux of the problem centers on the multiplicity of harmful statements and legislative proposals stemming from inter-party and intra-party competition, most of which were stillborn or ameliorated along the way. . . . in the current coalition, instead of the member parties functioning as a restraining influence on one another, they enable and encourage one another, and the Prime Minister does not stand in the breach.”
On the Left, primary elections brought to the fore a new group of young, idealistic politicians who are committed to activist parliamentarianism. Left-wing politicians who entered national politics in recent years understand that they may well spend a career in opposition, since the Left has not headed the government for 18 years and has been out of government for 12 of the past 20 years. This possibility undoubtedly deters many from the legislative adventure, but those who do run expect to be parliamentarians first and foremost. As a former Likud Minister told me, “there are some excellent, activist parliamentarians in the Knesset. Unfortunately, they are not from my party.”
The quest for a new, telegenic face, not tarred with the off-putting brush of “politician,” has also led to the election of Avi Gabbai to the leadership of the Zionist Union, a man who has never been a member of the party and who espouses some positions more characteristic of the political Center and even the Right. This is symptomatic of another, related dynamic of Israeli politics: its increasing personalization and the associated weakening of the party apparatuses. The Democracy Institute has found that this phenomenon is particularly prevalent in Israel, where the level of personalization was the highest among the 25 parliamentary and semi-parliamentary democracies examined.2
One former Minister told me: “Everything is shallow, everything is primaries. The primaries eat up the people [politicians].” Another explained: “They spend all their times looking at the polls. They are led by what the people want, rather than leading and educating them.” The public seems to understand this: A majority (62 percent) agreed with the statement “a good leader doesn’t do what the people want, but what he thinks they need.” This statement can, of course, also be interpreted as authoritarian in inspiration, but in my view it expresses a yearning for leadership that leads and forms, and doesn’t just follow, public opinion.
Many politicians, when they reach positions of ministerial power, are unable or unwilling to learn the difficult material of day-to-day governance or the minutiae of their ministries, and to make decisions that might be unpopular with their electorate. This is even true for members of the Ministerial Committee for National Security, known as the Security Cabinet. It has been for many years dominated by the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister, and most often sidelined or used as a rubber stamp. While some of the other members (especially those who are part of smaller informal, ministerial “kitchens,” where issues are discussed) are informed, engaged, and strive for influence, many of the dozen or so members are not. One former National Security Advisor said that in his experience, Cabinet members who are interested in being informed have access to all the information they required, “there is water in the trough; they need to go drink it.” He notes that many of the Cabinet members are quite busy with their own ministries or political activity, or have no knowledge in security and foreign affairs, and are little inclined to invest effort in their Cabinet membership. Similarly, while many of the 21 members and 15 alternate members of Knesset Foreign and Defense Committee are active and seek expertise and knowledge (one source said that the opposition members of the Knesset Foreign and Defense Committee are the more knowledgeable and active, since the Committee is one of the few channels of influence open to them), most do not.
It is not surprising that many Ministers are not knowledgeable and effective. The average term of a Minister in his ministry since 1996 has been less than two years. In the current government, which began serving in May 2015, ten Ministers out of 22 are serving for the first time (three other first-time Ministers have meanwhile left the government). Ten ministries have already changed hands (some, twice) since 2015. The Ministry of Economy is on its fourth Minister in 32 months, and its 14th in 20 years; the current Minister of Housing is the 13th in 20 years.
A key reason for the leadership malaise in Israel and low quality of many national politicians may be the long shadow of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu, on the cusp of his 13th (and tenth consecutive) year as Prime Minister, is an experienced, largely effective statesman and leader, and stands to a large degree head and shoulders above his Ministers and fellow party leaders. The Netanyahu ascendancy has led other capable and ambitious politicians, especially within his own party, to desert the political realm, understanding that “their turn” will be too long a time coming. In addition, Netanyahu has systematically seen off his most significant political rivals (notably former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon; Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz came close to defenestration this past year). It is hard to imagine who might be the next Likud Prime Minister. Those who enter the Likud likely operate under the assumption that, if they toe Netanyahu’s line, they stand a good chance of being in positions of influence: Out of today’s coalition of 67 Knesset members, 22 are Ministers and nine are deputy Ministers.
One very experienced and highly respected former Minister and Cabinet member explained it to me thus: All over the world, and in Israel, the skills and attributes you need to get elected are becoming farther differentiated from those you need to manage the affairs of state, which are in their turn becoming more and more complicated, as well as much faster paced. “Elitism,” expertise, and education are under attack. There are three ways to cover this gap, said this former Minister:
- Elect the right people. We need smart people, who have the knowledge and skillset to run the country. We don’t need average people, or those who brag that they don’t read books. But this requires educating the public to choose the right candidates, which is a difficult slog and may not be possible.
- Those individuals who are elected need to be curious and to spend time learning. They should be thirsty for knowledge. If they do not invest time and effort to educate themselves in times of quiet, they will lack the ability to catch up in times of crisis, and their ability to judge and influence events will be diminished. In his view, the most dangerous individual is the one who thinks he knows or understands but doesn’t. There is an “illusion of knowledge” among politicians.
- Utilize the civil servants. They are the real government, the nation’s institutional experience and memory. “A politician who doesn’t utilize what is available to him in knowledge and experience, is a criminal.”
The gap between this eminently reasonable advice and the political and electoral reality in Israel (and in other Western countries) does not bode well.
When the Israeli public feels that politics is no longer an honorable calling, and that the political sphere is one of corruption and detachment from the public, then all politicians, even the good ones, end up tarred with the same brush. Honorable, capable, and dedicated people will then think twice before entering the political arena. Israel has burgeoning high-tech industry, a robust civil society, and strong community-based and philanthropic sectors, where excellent people can go to do good. Many also end up in the defense establishment or the civil service, but stop short at making the jump to electoral politics. However, disdain for politicians, and for the calling of politics, will not lead to politics being done better.
1The parties that do not have primaries are often seen in Israel as being run in an undemocratic fashion, which in many cases is true. Parties such as the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas, (Defense Minister) Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beteinu (Israel is Our Home), and (Finance Minister) Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu (All of Us)—to name only those in the current government coalition—when they did better than expected in different election cycles, brought to the Knesset, and occasionally to the Government, back-bench figures who were unknown and had never been tested politically. While some of these have been pleasant surprises, many have not.
2See Gideon Rahat, “Israel Exemplifies Rise of Personalized Politics”, Israel Democracy Institute, March 13, 2017.