Israel’s cult of personality

An extreme emphasis on the personal in politics may threaten democracy.

Labor's Yacimovich at Dizengoff Center campaign event 370 (photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
Labor's Yacimovich at Dizengoff Center campaign event 370
(photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
Bibi or Bennett? Tzipi or Shelly? And what about Yair? It appears, in this election, that Israeli politics has degenerated into a simplistic beauty contest, blurring the serious issues the nation faces.
The personalization of politics is a process in which the weight of individual politicians grows, while the weight of political parties decreases. This is evident in the growing adoption of methods of candidate selection such as primaries, which emphasize personal competition, or mechanisms that entrust the selection of the Knesset list to a single leader.
Personalization of politics is also prevalent in the Israeli media, which has been increasingly downplaying political parties since the 1980s, emphasizing individual candidates – and especially party leaders – instead. Election campaigns also increasingly shine the spotlight on the party leader rather than the party.
Changes in the rules of the political game and in the nature of media coverage have led to changes in the behavior of politicians.
Party initiatives are increasingly replaced by individual initiatives, as shown by the dramatic increase in the number of private-member bills. Thousands of such bills have been submitted to the Knesset in recent years, in contrast to only dozens or at most a few hundred that have been submitted in other parliamentary democracies during the same period of time.
All these changes, in turn, affect voters, who are increasingly influenced by their perception of the party leader when they go to the polls. More and more, their decisions are influenced by the party head rather than by the party’s ideology and cadre of politicians.
In comparison to other parliamentary democracies, the personalization of politics is particularly evident in Israel, despite the fact that its governing institutions are largely based on cooperation between parties.
In the Israeli parliamentary system, it is the party – not the candidates or even the party head – that is presented to the voters on election day. Nonetheless, public discourse today focuses on the question of “Who are you voting for, Bibi or Bennett? Tzipi or Shelly?” Perhaps this is a remnant from the failed system of the direct election of the prime minister, which was in force between 1996 and 2001; perhaps it is yet another sign of the much derided Americanization of Israeli politics; and perhaps it is an indicator of changes in Israeli culture and the media.
While there are signs that this process of increasing personalization and a parallel decrease in the weight of political parties is also taking place in other parliamentary democracies, in Israel these two processes are especially acute and extreme.
There always has been a personal element in politics and always will be. Even in democracies – not just in dictatorships – we remember leaders who were outstanding and others who failed. However, a democracy is a system of laws that does not depend on a specific person.
An extreme emphasis on the personal in politics may threaten democracy. This is because personal politics lends itself to empty promises; indeed, history is full of accounts of the rise and fall of a reigning “messiah.” In an even darker scenario, personal politics may lead to personal dictatorship.
The need for united and functional parties that can provide a basis for action and can support leadership in the face of challenges was true even of David Ben- Gurion, whose tenure as head of the prestate Yishuv began in the 1930s and who served as prime minister almost continuously from 1948 to 1963. When Ben- Gurion headed Mapai, the forerunner of the Labor party, he was able to found and establish the State of Israel; when he abandoned the party, he soon found himself in the political wilderness.
Today’s leaders also need strong parties to support them. In democracies today, as in the past, citizens need vibrant parties to represent them; they need political bodies with identities, visions and plans that transcend the individuals who compose them.
The trend of establishing new parties centered on a specific individual, as in the cases of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid or Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, is not new. But whereas this phenomenon used to be limited to parties on the radical right, today it has spread to the center and center-left.
Parties are cobbled together by people who have already ordered their ministerial wardrobe – parties of elitists who see themselves as destined not to serve the people as Knesset Members, but rather to run the country. These parties are run undemocratically and revolve entirely around their leaders and elites. They have no substance beyond these personalities.
What, then, can be done? On the institutional level, we must not make the mistake of changing the system of government and reverting to the monstrous failure of direct elections of the prime minister.
What can be done, though, is to reel the cult of personality back into the context of the party by adopting a ballot system that would incorporate a personal component in party politics. If, for example, citizens could tick off specific candidates of the parties they vote for – and not only the party itself – on election day, their choice of person and party would be combined.
If this system were to be adopted, candidates could no longer win a high place on the party list thanks to the votes of people who register for a party to vote in its primary, and then vote for another party in the Knesset election.
In addition, parties should be encouraged and required to spend less money on shallow election propaganda and to focus more on meaningful ideological activities. They should also be rewarded for conducting their internal politics democratically. In return for the state regulating intra-party democratic procedures, such as leader and candidate selection, they should receive funding that will enable them to conduct internal democratic processes, rather than receiving criticism for financial irregularities after the fact.
Citizens also have a role to play here.
They must express their dissatisfaction with personal politics. They must assert their right to be heard inside the party and to share their ideas, a process that can be facilitated by new or existing technological platforms. Rather than engaging in gossip and worship of party leaders, they must demand that their needs are addressed and that their values and interests are represented.
Personal politics is not “new politics”; it is the old politics of kingdoms and royal courts, of gossip, intrigue, and personal relationships. The real new politics combines new and time-tested ideas. It must be played out within democratic parties and be internalized by them, so that they become a strong basis for sound governance.
Politicians must also play their part.
They need to know how to lose. Just as we encourage our children to be good losers, politicians must accept their losses, stay in their parties, and try to change them from within, rather than break away and set up new parties.
Similarly, talented new candidates such as Yair Lapid should join existing parties, breathe new life into them, and change them, rather than reinvent the wheel in the form of a “new party”– a course that has failed repeatedly.
The individual is the basic unit of liberal democracy. According to this doctrine, all individuals are equal, and all individuals together, as a collective, are sovereign. The representatives of the people are also individuals, but they are individuals who must work together.
Successful democratic politics is not a solo performance; it is a concert by many musicians who must play in harmony. The conductor of this ensemble is their leader, and while not playing themselves, conductors know how to orchestrate others harmoniously and successfully.
Prof. Gideon Rahat is Research Director of the Political Reform Project at the Israel Democracy Institute and Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.