The State of Israel is stuck in the 1980s

Studies have consistently revealed a contrast between strong public trust in Israel’s local government, and low public trust in the central government.

The Knesset building in the snow (photo credit: KNESSET SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
The Knesset building in the snow
Against the backdrop of the continuing instability of Israel’s central government and its failures in handling the coronavirus pandemic, the past year has seen local government provide an island of stability and sanity in Israeli governance. It is no coincidence that over and over again, local government wins high trust ratings from the Israeli public, and that these ratings have been rising over time. 
Data from the 2020 Israeli Democracy Index, published recently, reveal that 60% of Israelis have trust and confidence in their local authority, three times the equivalent figures for the government (22%) and the Knesset (20%), and four times higher than for political parties (14%).
The pandemic has brought to the forefront what was already clear. Previous studies and surveys have consistently revealed a striking contrast between strong public trust in Israel’s local government, and low public trust in the central government and the Knesset. In fact, this is not just an Israeli phenomenon: both in the European Union and the US, public trust in local government is much higher than in national government and in national parliaments. In 2020, of the 28 EU states, only in one (the Netherlands) were levels of trust higher in national government than in local government.
Despite this similarity, the status of local government in Israel is very different from in the US and the European Union, as the Israeli system of government is marked by a degree of centralization that undermines the powers of local authorities. In an index of decentralization of power to local authorities produced by World Bank researchers, Israel ranked 94th out of a total of 182 countries, and enjoyed the dubious distinction of coming in last among OECD countries. Centralization in Israel is present in almost every area of life, but particularly in its appallingly centralized education and public transport systems, as well as in the lack of independence and over-regulation of local authorities.
Along with the rankings in various international comparisons, it is also important to learn from the historical experiences that drove different countries to adopt different models for devolution of power from national to local government.
The US has always been one of the most decentralized countries in the world. Unlike many other countries, from its inception, it was established as a union of diverse communities, based on a guiding principle of decentralization of powers as much as possible. Against the backdrop of the increasing polarization within American society, which has recently reached new heights surrounding the November election, many believe that the devolution of powers to state and local bodies is what has enabled the US to remain a stable democratic country and to continue functioning despite these formidable challenges.
Israel remains far from the level of social polarization seen in the US, but it is nevertheless difficult to ignore the complex political reality in which we currently find ourselves. It is already clear that no matter what the results of the upcoming elections and who is installed as prime minister, large segments of the Israeli public will continue to distrust the government. Particularly in light of recent events in the US, we see that devolving powers to local government can be a highly effective way to maintain stability even during times of harsh conflict in national government.
In the Israeli context, the European experience is even more interesting. In contrast to the US, centralization in European states was key to early efforts to institute democracy and restrict the feudal rights of the aristocracy. This was how European states were shaped in the 20th century, based on a centralized approach that was also embraced by the young and socialist State of Israel. However, the 1980s brought a shift in Europe due to considerable disappointment with the results of centralization, and to a general trend towards neo-liberalism. In 1985, European countries signed the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which includes many clauses anchoring the independence of local government and the need to maintain it as a local democratic framework.
While Israel has enthusiastically adopted the centralist European model, it has failed to adopt the comprehensive reforms carried out in Europe which have strengthened local government. One of the main lessons to be learned from the pandemic is the need to adopt this revised model, and grant far greater powers to local authorities, albeit several decades late. The data from last year’s Israeli Democracy Index clearly reveal broad and unequivocal consensus on this issue among the Israeli public.■
The writer is head of the Local Government Project at the Israel Democracy Institute