On Tuesday, Israelis will go to the polls to vote in local and municipal elections. These local authorities, while not involved in the well-known issues of war and peace, the Palestinian conflict, and foreign relations, nevertheless play a major role in Israeli life.
Indeed, Israeli citizens are impacted daily by the decisions emanating from their respective city, local or regional councils. Just like in the national political arena, however, the quality of the politicians varies greatly, which is why, similar to other governance questions in Israel, reform is sorely needed.
Israel is divided into more than 260 local authorities, ranging from major cities, to smaller municipalities and regional collections of several rural communities together. Elections later this month will be held for representatives to each respective council, as well as the head of the council – in many cases, a mayor.
These mayors and councils hold sway on issues of vital public importance: education, culture, infrastructure and zoning, commerce and quality of life, to name but a few. Municipalities with ample resources have a lot of power to shape their local environment – and by extension, the lives of their residents. The opposite, to be sure, is also true for those localities with fewer resources at their disposal.
Local authorities genuinely do a lot of good, but their public image has been tarnished by constant corruption investigations (and many convictions). Seemingly not a week goes by without another report on a mayor being questioned by the police. This is a byproduct of the local political system.
To begin with, the opportunities for graft are endless, and the incentives significant. With one signature the head of a local council can create millions of shekels in business: choosing one contractor over another, approving or denying a re-zoning permit, allowing a hotel complex to go ahead or not. The local “planning and building committees” that wield enormous influence on land use are made up of the local council members. Whether due to pressure from outside interests or merely political pressure to deliver results, these committees often cut corners and are overly opaque. Finally, the political culture at this local level warps incentives, with campaign donations expected to be returned through various “favors” once a politician wins.
The solution, some argue, is to impose term limits on mayors – the thinking being that holding power for years (if not decades) corrupts a politician. Yet research by the Israel Democracy Institute, which I head, shows that there is no direct link between corruption and multiple terms in office. Corruption, if it happens, usually takes place in the first or second term. In other words, it has more to do with the individual than the length of time he or she serves. Moreover, despite common perceptions, few mayors in Israel serve longer than three terms.
Instead, a two-pronged reform effort is required, focusing on both the local and national level.
On the local level, reform of the planning and building committees is necessary in order to better inform the public and defend against corruption. Transparency of committee deliberations, accessibility to information, greater public participation at earlier stages of the planning process, publicizing – and eliminating – conflicts of interest, and increased legal oversight are all steps that need to be taken. The good news is that much of them already exist in the legal code; it just needs to be implemented. Additionally, the relevant “watchdogs of democracy” – the police, prosecutors, judiciary and media (especially local) – all need to be supported and strengthened. The fact that so many local politicians are investigated is a testament to the necessity of these actors.
On the national level, the connection between local politics and the Israeli government, ministries, and major political parties has to be strengthened. This would include, firstly, the political parties using local politics as an arena for developing new leaders. Such a move would not only help the major political parties increase their talent pool and ground-level presence, but also correct the incentive structure for local politicians as well. The nefarious “give-or-take” dynamic, whereby local politicians are viewed solely as vote contractors, would decrease. Competence in governing, and not electioneering, would take precedence.
As it stands today, the relationship between the local authorities and national government in terms of governance is almost solely technocratic and transactional. The head of a local council interacts with government ministry clerks – from the Interior Ministry, Finance Ministry, and the like – in order to, oftentimes, simply secure funding. The ties, therefore, are bureaucratic, with one side (the local) almost wholly dependent on the other (national). This is a disservice to the citizenry, but above all it is a missed opportunity for better government responsiveness and accountability.
While Israeli national politics get most of the coverage, it is the local level that in many cases has the greatest impact on Israeli lives. The cities, towns, villages and communities that make up the vast mosaic of Israel are a complex system, to be sure, but their politics deserve more attention and professional care. Positive change – and reform – for Israel should not only be viewed as coming from above, but indeed, may have to start from the bottom. The writer is the president of the Israel Democracy Institute and former member of Knesset.