Israel's Democratic Crisis - Then & Now

Israel’s Democratic Crisis – Then & Now

Address by Daniel Tauber
2nd Annual Menachem Begin Memorial Conference
April 1, 2012

Menachem Begin Heritage Center
JERUSALEM

“What is freedom of the individual? . . . The individual person must be free to assemble with other people, to express the belief that is common to them, in order to realize, or try to realize, their opinions. Man must be free to dispatch his representative emissaries to the various branches of government; he must be free to demand their resignation and replacement with other representative emissaries.”
Daniel Tauber, Likud Anglos Executive-Director speaking at the 
2nd Annual English-language Menachem Begin Memorial Conference 
organized by  Likud Anglos and other organizations. 
These words of democracy and representative democracy, freedom of speech, were spoken by Menachem Begin at a Herut convention in 1951. At the time those lofty words of democracy were spoken, and for many years after and many years before, both Menachem Begin and his mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky were derided as the enemies of democracy.

But, now that socialism has proven to be, at best, a failed experiment, and now that the Likud has broken the one-party domination of Labor and is now the leading party in Israel, that has changed. More than that, those on the Left who were so ready to denounce them now scour their articles looking for a quote here or there to support their own agenda. So the tables have turned.

But at least today they have been recognized as liberals, as democrats. The reality is that not only were they liberals, but they may have been Israel’s only true liberals, because Begin and Jabotinsky were the leaders of the struggle against the socialists who aimed at total domination of Israeli politics. The socialists wanted a one-party system.

And until 1977, they pretty much had their way, and it wasn’t just because socialism was popular in the world or popular among Jews because of its egalitarian or seemingly egalitarian ideals. They used a number of tactics. They demonized the Revisionists, who were later called Herutniks, they called them fascists. Begin and Jabotinsky were each in their own time called “Hitler.” Jabotinsky was sometimes called “Vladimir Hitler.” This was an attempt to silence them and delegitimize them and to make it so that their ideas were bad and if you associated with them you were bad too.

And before the State was established, another tactic was manipulating the elections for the Zionist Congress. There was the shekel. You had to pay a shekel to be a member vote. That was nice in the beginning, but for the Jews of Poland in the 1930s, when the Polish government restricted Jewish business activities and the Jews of Poland were barely making a living, they couldn’t afford it and they coincidentally comprised hundreds of thousands of Jabotinsky’s supporters. Despite their economic hardship the requirement wasn’t dropped while at the same time the Leftists had rich Jews buy shekels on their own behalf. They also sought to enforce "discipline" on the movement, on all parties of the movement, which meant that you couldn’t really disagree with what the movement was saying.

Another tactic was sheer violence. They actually beat up Revisionists. They would storm their meetings and beat them up. And of course, if the Histadrut had called a strike and the revisionists who were against these constant strikes because they were damaging the Zionist enterprise, if they volunteered of course they would get beaten up. And when Menachem Begin was head of the Irgun, there was the Saison in which the Labor dominated Haganah hunted down Irgun members, handing them over to the British. There was the sinking of the Altalena in which Ben Gurion ordered the IDF to points its guns and Jewish immigrants, Jewish soldiers and Jewish weapons. Ben Gurion would praise the “holy cannon” that sank the ship, another part of the delegitimization campaign.

So by the time that Begin had taken over the [Revisionist-Zionist] movement, its leader [Jabotinsky] had just died in 1940. The Holocaust had wiped out, the Germans I should say, wiped out hundreds of thousands of its supporters, the Yishuv, the Va’ad HaLeumi of the Yishuv, the [Zionist] Congress, and then the State of Israel and its institution – the government and the constituent Assembly, which was the First Knesset, these were elected bodies, but they weren’t democratic in the fullest sense of the term.

Luckily begin was political adept, and was able to take the movement and enable it to survive and ultimately thrive. He did this with a number of his own tactics. One of them was just turning the other cheek. Instead of fighting, returning fire for the Saison he could have launched a revolt [against the Haganah/Jewish Agency], after the Altalena he could have done the same. He actually restrained the Irgun in its anger. And after that, after the State of Israel was formed, he joined its democratic system, formed the Herut party, even though the system was stacked against him.

He looked for alliances with anti-socialist parties to combat the delegitimization campaign. [After the liberal General Zionists rejected his overtures, he succeeded in creating a joint list with the Liberal Party, which had succeeded the General Zionists electorally, to form Gahal – Gush Herut Liberalim]. He championed the idea of the loyal opposition, the idea that there has to be somebody there to criticize the government. It can’t just be one voice. It can’t just be like 1984.

With all of that, in 1977, he was able to break the dominance of the socialist, but don’t think of it as a victory for Begin or as a victory for the Likud or even the policies they were advocating. It was a success for the policies and for Begin and Likud, but it was also a victory for Israeli democracy because until then one party had dominated everything for three decades, and even longer if we take into account the pre-state Yishuv.

Consider what it was called. It was called the “mahapach” – the “upheavel.” So after the Yom Kippur War, when everybody had seen the egregious mistakes of the Labor party how they had almost brought Israel to its destruction – it wasn’t a secret, it wasn’t something that we learned in the archives later, it was something that people knew about. There had been an independent commission that studied and released its results at the time. But even then people couldn’t even conceive that anybody else could run the government.

Thankfully today, in this post “mahapach,” post-socialist world, we have a rich tapestry of parties. The joke in Israel should be two Jews and three opinions, it should be two Jews and three Israeli political parties. And we have, in large part, Menachem Begin to thank for that. But even with this more developed idealogical spectrum and more diverse citizenry the political system is still sick. And it’s primarily due to what we call the proportional representation system or the party-list system. It’s the system that makes Israel based on the miphlagot – the parties.

In this system, there is one district, Israel is all one district, and that means that the parties, can draw support from anywhere in the country. And that makes it very easy to get into the Knesset. And more than that it makes it very easy to become an indispensible part of a coalition, the government. And the worst part of that is that it makes the parties above the candidates, and therefore it puts them above you as well. It results in minority rule over majority rule. Sectarianism over national unity. A tendency towards instability as opposed to stability. A lack of accountability. I would say that to sum it up as much as we have a democratia we also have a miphlogatia.

Now to understand why this is bad, those were some general ideas, I want to point out a few examples. We know that to form a coalition when you have multiple parties you have to get a majority – in a parliamentary system you need a majority to form a coalition, a majorit of support from the legislature. So to form that majority, when there are so many small parties you have to make a broad coalition of many disparate parts. So what does that mean for the executive?

It means its very weak. It means its ineffective. I’ll give you a few examples. If you remember when Vice President Joe Biden visited there was an announcement of building in Eastern Jerusalem by the interior ministry. And the United States saw this as an opportunity – ‘oh you embarrassed us,’ and they saw that as an opportunity to create a rift and to attack Israel. And the Prime Minister’s office had to say we didn’t know of the announcement, they had to distance themselves from it. A few months later, the Defense Minister went to the US gave a public speech and he advocated the division of Jerusalem, something this government is against, and again the Prime Minister’s Office had to say, the Defense Minister, the number two or three person in our government, he doesn’t represent us. He doesn’t represent official government policy. And shortly after that the Foreign Minister gave a speech to the UN General Assembly where he said Israel doesn’t see peace on the horizon for another 30-40 years. And again, the Prime Minister’s Office had to say this guy who happens to be the person who represents us to the world, doesn’t represent government policy. How can a government function like this? That’s not a criticism of the Prime Minister, because he’s done an amazing job keeping together the coalition as long as he has. But it’s amazing to me that people could expect a government to function like this.

It also makes the government weak in the face of foreign pressure. Any foreign power knows that in a coalition of so many people one of those parties is going to support its own viewpoint, one will be a tacit agent of what it wants to promote. And more than that the government in Israel can fall. Foreign pressure on a small country, an internationally minded country makes government unpopular. and they know that if they push hard enough, the government will give in or the government will fall.

That also means there is a lot of instability.  Government is supposed to be a stabilizing factor. But no one knows when elections will be, how long the policies that have been put in place will continue to be in place. Government is not supposed to be a de-stabilizing factor in life.

And then there is the legislature. The government represents a majority of the legislature and that means that it pretty much controls it. It means that any time you want to pass a law the coalition is at stake. That means that whatever its merits or demerits, its not going to be considered. There’s actually standard language in coalition agreements that says no members of the coalition may vote for a basic law unless all parties to the coalition agree.

It also promotes sectarianism, because instead of having to seek the support and votes of all people, it’s easier to act like a marketing executive. Pick a demographic, advertise to that demographic, cater to them, play off their sense of discrimination, sense of entitlement and you’ll get them to come out and vote for you. So instead of promoting national unity, it promotes sectarianism.

And of course there’s the lack of Accountability. you vote for a party not a person. For example when led the Likud to its last victory under his leadership, he campaigned against the Disengagement Plan, but nobody had reason to fear that by enacting the same plan they had campaigned against they can slap on a different party sticker and get support from elsewhere.

And I think the worse thing is that you’re voting for parties. It makes the party artificially important. So the internal bodies of the party, the internal electorial system, they become the place where real politics happens, and nobody knows really how they work. Nobody except a few people on the inside. And because the parties are comprised of so few people it means that if you register a few thousand or even few hundred people, you’ve got more say in who is in the Knesset than millions of Israelis.

I’ll give an example of the system at its most heinous. The Likud between 1996 and 2006, when the Knesset list was chosen by the Central Committee. I know of one candidate who asked not to be named, who was more than deserving of having a say in our national life, of representing us in the Knesset. He would have been a credit to the Likud and a credit to Israel. He told me a he ran a great campaign. He met with Central Committee and told them his ideas for policies and his qualifications and he won their support. He conducted outside polls which showed that he was destined to win by large margins. But before election day something else happened. All the party bosses, all the heads of the party branches got together and they made deals between themselves to make sure that their own candidates would win. And he wasn’t elected, and we’re the ones who suffered. Thankfully the Prime Minister had the Central Committee relinquish that power so today there are primaries.

But there is actually a proposal on the table today, being discussed today, to return it to the old system. What does that mean? It means that a few thousand people will be choosing Knesset members again. For all those people who registered, primaries will be cancelled, you’re right to vote will be cancelled. What’s most embarrassing to my mind, is that one of the proposals for this, is being pushed forward by a Member of Knesset. Somebody who is supposed to be representing you is actually looking to hinder your ability to be represented.

When I think about that proposal it reminds of something Jabotinsky said about how special Zionism was, how special Herzl’s achievement was. He said the following in a speech in 1929 at the Zionist Congress:

“When the poor and downtrodden Jew was spoken to 30 years ago about the struggle for law and justice, he would answer; ‘Who and what am I? I am only a poor beggar and to keep my mouth shut. Only the powerful and affluent have the right to decide on public issues.” 

“Then Herzl came on the scene. Many of Herzl’s achievement will be taken away from him; but one thing will always remain to his credit. He gave that humbled Jew the shekel. After three or four years we already saw what a change came over that poor Jew. The vision of Zion, hope of a nation, a new sun in the sky, the redemption of the Jewish people. And he, the downtrodden, would be given the power to determine and decide. He says to himself: ‘The World Zionist Congress will soon be held. Who knows perhaps a question will arise where a single vote can decide the issue. Or, perhaps it will be the delegate from my city and it will be decided by a few votes among them perhaps is my vote. And the question whether the Jewish people is taking the right path or not is to be decided by the vote of the simple man, me.”

In this speech we see how notions of democracy, representation, individual rights, the importance of every Jew and Hadar all came together in Jabotinsky’s philosophy which was Begin’s philosophy.

The proposals to cancel the primaries, they throw that philosophy out the window. Instead of empowering the individual, and giving him a sense of Hadar, it aims to turn him into a friar [Hebrew slang for a sucker]. The party has told you join up, file a membership form, and for those of you who have actually become members know, sometimes its two membership forms or three membership forms, wait a year and half and then you’ll get your membership rights, and all the while pay your membership fee, and then at the crucial moment you’ve been waiting for – the one chance in Israel’s democracy where you have the chance to vote for an actual person, not a party, an actual person, whose accountable to you, they want to take it away from you. 

I would say this is an embarrassing proposal, this is a laughable proposal. But the joke might be on us because of spoken to a lot of insiders who are too afraid to say anything against this, who don’t even oppose it, or who are willing to compromise with it so the joke may be on us.

But even if the proposal doesn’t go through. All of the political parties, all their internal systems, leave much to be desired. Aside from Likud, I don’t know if any party, even Kadima has over 100,000 members who are able to vote. The Likud has about 120,000 members. About 50,000 vote in primaries, maybe a little bit more this coming time. But again that means that a few people make a difference. So the few party bosses who register people They are all powerful in this system. And this results in a friend-bring-a-friend policy, a family-bring-a-family-member policy. If you actually look at the election results for the Likud’s Central Committee elections. You’ll see the blocs of candidates from a certain family. In one city I saw twenty to thirty members of the same family. And on top of that we have the vote contractors. These are people who actually pay people to register people to the party. Having done that, they know they can twist ministers and MKs to do their bidding.

In addition, there are the rules, the process. Nobody knows what they are. When is the election? How is the election going to be held? Who qualifies to run? Who qualifies to vote? Who is making these decisions? How to the people get elected to those bodies? Nobody knows how it works. And all the rules can be changed. They can be changed fifteen days before an election. They can even be changed after the election.

In the last few years, looking at some of our neighbors, we have seen that having a vote, an election, that doesn’t mean you have a democracy. It’s about more than voting It’s about a competition of ideas, public participation, due process. Without those a democracy can’t function well. And if democracy isn’t functioning well, then the political branches that are elected in a democracy they aren’t going to be making the right decisions.

And our democracy has made some pretty bad decisions. Whether its the terrorist releases; the Oslo Accords; the Disengagement, those are just a few of the big ones. .

Just as Begin struggled, not only to get his policies approved, to get his party in power, to get himself in power, he struggled to improve Israel’s democracy, we need to do our part as well. Perhaps we have a greater responsibility because we can build on what he achieved. We’re not in the political wilderness. We’re not called fascists because we support the Land of Israel or strong national security policies.

I don’t think it can be done with these band-aids that you hear about like splitting the elections for Prime Minister and the Knesset. That just actually empowered the parties further. And then there is this proposal that people talk about to raise the percentage requirements. Yes, that will knock out a few small parties. But it will actually end up empowering the mid-size parties because those small parties will have to join in with somebody. It actually eliminates the one good thing about the current system which is protection of minority rights. But it doesn’t eliminate the problem of parties. It doesn’t eliminate the problem that you’re voting for a party and that’s where all the power is.

The only solution, or the minimum solution, because there is a lot of work that needs to be done, the minimum solution that has to be enacted is district elections, for at least the majority if not vast majority of Knesset seats.  

In a system with district elections, candidates, not the parties, the candidates have to go directly to the public, they have to showcase their ideals, they have to show what they want to do, and if their an incumbent they have to show what they have done. They have to defend their record. Their accountable. And it means that the public, not just the party bosses, decide It incentivizes national politics, where candidates campaign to all types of people not just certain sectors. It means that there is one winner. And when winner takes all, you can have a majority or at least a large plurality making it easier to from a government.

The second thing we need is more public participation in political parties. Parties will always be the gatekeepers to public life. Instead of having maybe 5% of the public actually having a say in party lists we need to increase that to 50%. And as members of the party that we belong to – I’m not saying join a party you don’t believe in – we need to demand due process, fair notice and hard and fast rules, and defined rules before the elections.

I don’t want to mislead anyone into believing that I don’t value what Israel has achieved. I didn’t come here from my home country, in my case the U.S. ,merely to compare everything. But having knowledge of another democratic system, particularly the world’s most admired – helps one recognize problems. Not only in this system, but in the U.S. as well. Israel has achieved more than anyone else in the world thought it could. But it can achieve a lot more. But a political system– which creates barrier to public involvement and influence, which leads to week governments and legislatures – is hindering that from happening.

In Begin’s time the symptom was one-party domination, the symptoms today are different, but the underlying cause is still the same – a system that gives the power to the party. Again, I don’t want to mislead anyone. This is not to say there is no role for parties.  You’ll notice that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mentions the freedom to assembly. In the quote from Begin’s speech from 1952, he also mentioned the freedom of assembly. This is referring to parties. Political parties are good, we just need to make sure that they are the tools of the public and not the other way around.

I want to close with a final note. Since I’ve come here, I’ve heard many Israelis who say that our democracy, our “liberalism,” is making us weak. They’re frustrated with the bad policies. Their afraid that democracy is not the right answer. I think the opposite is true. It’s the anti-democratic actions, the manipulations, the cracks in the system, those have hindered us, those have weakened us. Just as in Begin’s time, it was free speech, free assembly, more democracy not less, that took him and the right policies to victory. It’s the same for us today. We have to keep pushing for democracy.  

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