The Failings of Israeli Democracy: A Spotlight on the Coming Elections

Israel’s current election campaign is an opportunity to draw attention to the many failings of the country’s democratic system of governance, one which is allegedly an example and model for the Arab countries in the region. First of all, the system of multiple parties that lets anyone interested establish a party and attempt to join the country’s leadership—regardless of age, faith, ethnicity, and sex—is undoubtedly a positive mark of democracy. However, this is not without its shortcomings, as it generates many governance problems, since in order to form a government the party that receives the highest relative number of mandates must put together a coalition with other small niche parties. This exigency results in a distortion of the voters’ intentions, as they voted for the victorious party in the faith and hope that it would act to realize its vision, values, and beliefs—which they share—whereas in practice it must relinquish a considerable part of these principles and values in order to form, maintain, and preserve the coalition partnership that it requires to remain in power. If so, what is the point of presenting a pre-election platform in the knowledge that there is virtually no way that it can be upheld by the victorious party? Another problem has to do with the fact that since 1988-1992, no Israeli government has managed to complete its term, i.e., to serve for a full 48 months. This reality too is directly related to the existence of multiple parties and to the government’s sensitivity to coalition crises that undermine its stability. Israeli politicians are aware of these circumstances and therefore endeavor, from the government’s initial days, to promote a public policy capable of generating immediate and short-term political profit. Israeli politicians prepare themselves for the next elections (which even if formally scheduled are in effect uncertain and at the mercy of the various partners in the coalition) immediately upon establishment of the current government, and operate with one main goal: to parade their actions in front of the voters in the hope of impressing them with their achievements and being elected in the next round of elections. This undesirable situation explains the shortsighted policy that has been implemented in Israel in the last thirty years (approximately) in many areas of our life. One example is the policy of the Ministry of Finance for operating reduced-cost housing plans and restraining the demand for apartments as a way of lowering prices, when it is clear to everyone that increasing the supply of houses is the right and true (not to mention only) way of lowering prices in the long term. Increasing the supply, however, would take many years and its effects on the real estate market would be felt much later, after the end of the government’s term. Therefore, it is easier and quicker for the Ministry of Finance and the figure at its head to act to restrict demand in the industry in order to present voters with immediate achievements, even if the harm caused by this policy, with its effect of leading to a drop in the supply of housing, will be felt in the next term when the prices of housing will surge.

The policy of the Ministry of Transportation, in its attempt to cope with the problem of Israel’s congested roads, is another good example of a short-term, interest-based policy. Traffic congestion is a result, on the one hand, of positive trends involving the country’s growing population and rising quality of life, but on the other, of a negative trend related to the lack of a sufficiently developed, efficient and convenient system of public transportation. Therefore, the default (or in fact the only option) for citizens who can afford it and who wish to travel from place to place freely and efficiently is to purchase a car. As a result, the demand for cars is rising at a higher rate than the rise in the supply of roads, and the congestion on the roads is becoming more acute. In order to solve this problem, the Ministry of Transportation should have acted to depress the demand for privately owned vehicles by massive development of public transportation and diverting budgets from paving roads and interchanges to this purpose. However, since it is easier and quicker to increase the supply of roads, the Ministry of Transportation has promoted many projects that involved paving roads and building interchanges, subsequently boasting of its implementation of this policy, because this appears to relieve the congestion problems. But this relief (if it will indeed be achieved) will be very temporary and the new roads will quickly become congested as well. Therefore, it would have been better and more suitable to put all efforts into significantly improving the system of public transportation in order to form a real alternative for citizens. This is the only way to reduce the demand for use of private vehicles and to produce real, long-term relief of the level of congestion.

These two examples—and there are many more, such as the healthcare system, nursing care, the educational system, shaping the future employment market, and others—demonstrate the negative effects of democracy as manifested in Israeli politics. The solution to these phenomena lies in changing the governance method in such a way that the democratically elected party will be able to govern in a true and stable manner (rather than being controlled by its coalition partners), thus encouraging its leaders to form and implement a proper and efficient public policy for the long term and to the benefit of all citizens of the state.