Current events in Egypt are further proof of the fact that despite Twitter,
Facebook, smartphones, and all the other modern means and gadgets, efforts at
direct democracy have not become more effective. True, it has become much easier
than in previous decades to organize movements and protests, but the power game
has remained as it always was.
The Arab Spring in Egypt, as elsewhere in
the Arab world, was ignited by a younger generation with dreams of western-style
democracy. However, since this younger generation – though fervent it certainly
is, as well as savvy in the use of said modern means and gadgets – does not
enjoy the support of the majority, the process that it ignited was soon taken
over by Islamic forces, which apparently do enjoy the support of the majority,
or are at least much shrewder brokers of power.
The social protest in
Israel in the summer of 2011 was also ignited with the help of the same means
used in Egypt, and at least at first – after the establishment of the
Trajtenberg Committee – it looked as if it would attain some tangible
Though in the sphere of free education for younger children, a
little something was achieved – largely because Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu started to fear the possible electoral ramifications – on the whole
nothing fundamental changed. This led several of the leaders of the social
protest to reach the conclusion that direct democracy has its limits, and as a
result we saw Itzik Shmuli, Stav Shapir and Prof. Yossi Yona deciding to enter
the representative democracy game and run in the Labor Party
What is direct democracy? Direct democracy means that the
people themselves act directly, by various means, to determine policy, rather
than indirectly by means of the representatives they vote for every so often in
elections. All modern democracies are based on representative democracy, though
most also have provisions for manifestations of direct democracy.
democracy can take the form of referenda, citizens’ conferences (a Danish idea)
that try to formulate a consensus on certain issues, participation in the
legislative work of parliamentary committees, etc.
turn into a form of direct democracy if they start a revolution that does not
end up in some form of autocratic regime, or if they manage to shake passive
elected representatives into action.
Neither of these happened in Egypt,
or in Israel in 2011/12.
IN ISRAEL, manifestations of direct democracy
have been slow to develop. Several citizens’ conferences were held within the
framework of the Knesset in the course of the 1990s, but were totally
ineffective because there was no mechanism connecting their deliberations to the
formal decision making process.
In 2002 the Knesset started to enable
citizens to participate in certain committee meetings online. The initiator of
the idea was the ever resourceful MK Michael Eitan (who will unfortunately not
be a member of the 19th Knesset), and formally the procedure still exists, but
it is more a gimmick than an effective means of influence.
Anyone who has
ever been involved in the work of Knesset committees knows that they all work
under serious time constraints, that enabling every Tom, Dick and Harry to have
a say during meetings is a sure way of wasting valuable time, and that anyone
who is really interested in participating in the deliberations, and has
something tangible to contribute, is able to arrange to be formally invited to
participate in the meetings.
In November 2010 a law was passed enabling
the holding of a referendum in the event of the Israeli government reaching an
agreement involving the relinquishment of sovereignty over territories, and its
not being approved by at least 80 MKs.
While this law opens the gate to
the holding of referenda in Israel, the likelihood of a referendum on any issue
being held in Israel in the foreseeable future is slim.
In the past year,
various NGOs have made it their business to send observers to Knesset committee
meetings as watchdogs.
However, since on the whole the Knesset committee
system is relatively fair and effective, once again we are speaking of a gimmick
rather than an effective democratic tool that has a real chance of preventing
the occasional (though rare) “hijacking” of a vote, or other Machiavellian
tricks. From my experience with this phenomenon, the persons involved are
usually both innocent and not very knowledgeable regarding the workings of the
Knesset, and frequently climb up the wrong tree.
Finally, it is possible
today to contact the Knesset by means of Facebook. However, the person dealing
with the incoming messages is not someone senior in the Knesset administration.
While interesting messages might be forwarded to the appropriate authority or
person, this can hardly be viewed as a means of direct democracy.
again one should not confuse modern means of communication with effective
In short, while the idea of direct democracy is trendy, voting
in elections is still a citizen’s main tool to have some influence.
those we vote for are unlikely to be able to realize even a fraction of what
they promise, but this is due to the fact that our system of elections leads to
a fragmented Knesset and incoherent coalition governments, and not even the
prime minister can fully realize his platform (incidentally, nor can the US
president, but that is a different story).
Nevertheless, by voting we
have more of a chance to influence the general direction of things than if we do
not vote. By not voting we merely strengthen those with agendas different from
our own. Direct democracy is not a viable alternative. Nor are cynical remarks
over coffee on Friday night.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.