The Civic Balm? (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The 2009 elections - thank God - are over, but they have left us with more questions than answers. The easy questions are: Who will be the next Prime Minister? Who will be in the coalition? But there are tougher questions too: Were these elections even meaningful? How did Israel's political landscape become such a wasteland? And, most importantly: Is there any way out? Is there a civic balm for Gilad? Many citizens would answer a resounding "no." There are 33 parties but no one to vote for, they would say, because of public enemy du jour: the system. Because of it, the argument goes, governments have zero survival rate. The system breeds parties like bacteria, spawns unstable coalitions, and leaves the Prime Minister impotent. Politicians may start off with good intentions, but the rotten system leaves them little choice: Sell out or sit it out. Others would argue that the real problem is the politicians. Ask the 35 percent of Israeli citizens who didn't vote: They will say that politicians are selfish, shallow and corrupt. In 2008, the Democracy Index, published by the Israel Democracy Institute found that a majority (51 percent) of respondents agreed that "to reach the top in today's politics in Israel you have to be corrupt;" nearly six in ten (58 percent) said that politicians are driven by self-interest rather than the country's interest, and an appalling 70 percent agree that politicians do not take the views of ordinary citizens into account. Israelis viewed politicians as worse than in past years (71 percent), and worse than in other countries (54 percent). In this view, changing the system would be a deeply misguided, wasted effort. With acerbic eloquence, Yossi Sarid wrote in the Hebrew daily, Haaretz, on February 20, "It's not the system that needs to be changed, but the fools." He ended by admonishing his readers, "And now, idiots… go find yourself some new representatives." This column is dedicated to the nearly two-thirds of Israelis (65 percent), who, despite apparently dismal misgivings, performed the thankless task of voting to make things better. They placed their trust in the democratic process despite repeated and bitter disappointment. We owe it to them - to ourselves - to find and fix what is wrong. The Jerusalem Report asked a representative sample of 500 voting-age Israeli Jews whether they want to fix the house, or tear it down. That is, respondents were asked, with which of the following two statements did they agree: • "Israel needs to change the electoral system to a regional vote where citizens directly elect people on the party lists, the party threshold is raised to reduce small parties, and more power is given to the leader. That is the way to revive the public's trust in politics" OR • "Changing the electoral system won't restore public faith in the leadership. The problem is that most politicians are corrupt, care only about themselves, and are out of touch with voters. It's not the system that needs to change, but the people." The latter sentence would have seemed to be the obvious choice: cut off all 120 of the hydra's heads. But Israelis revealed a genuine, divisive struggle with the issue. A slim plurality (47 percent) opted to change the system, while 42 percent of respondents blamed the situation on the politicians. Extract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.