Our broken system

Only structural reforms, responsibility and a renewed commitment to civic virtue can mend it.

ballot box 88 (photo credit: )
ballot box 88
(photo credit: )
Think of Israel's political system as a homeostatic device. When working properly, the country's temperature is, say, a comfortable 22.2 degrees (72°F). Some citizens might want it hotter, others cooler, but the apparatus is programmed to find most people's comfort level. However, when majorities consistently demand a change in temperature, yet the system is unresponsive - as if the thermostat was broken - you're looking at a dysfunctional political system. Political scientist David Easton argued that a system is endowed with the capacity to gauge its own state of health. It senses public opinion swings, levels of voter participation, even violence, and takes corrective measures to restore equilibrium. Israel's political system has been getting feedback that should have alerted it long ago that citizens are dissatisfied. Its homeostatic failure is worrisome. The signs of discontent are blatant: Though over 30 parties are competing in today's election, many voters are saying, "There's no one to vote for." Few Israelis will wake up Wednesday morning feeling they'll have a real voice in the 18th Knesset. Only 15 percent, according to the Israel Democracy Institute (IDC), trust political parties. The percentage of voters going to the polls plummeted from 87 percent in the 1949 Knesset elections to 63.5% in 2006. Those going to the polls today will be doing so with little zest. Perhaps 20-30% will be making up their minds at the last minute. Fewer and fewer strongly identify with any party. In this environment of discontent the populist Israel Beiteinu seems poised to practically double its Knesset representation on the strength of a demagogic appeal to have those who are already citizens formally pledge allegiance. Alienation, apathy and lack of participation extend well beyond electoral politics to encompass institutions such as the media and judiciary. The IDC's 2008 Democracy Index reported that only 35% consider the Supreme Court to be safeguarding our democracy. By these same criteria, the media receives a 37% rating. A staggering 90% of those surveyed believe the system is riddled with corruption. WITH many Israelis relating to today's election with a combination of lethargy and cynicism, something clearly needs to be done to fix our dysfunctional system. But what? To the extent that citizens feel their elected officials lack accountability, and that voters have no real representation in the corridors of power, part of the solution is electoral reform. This newspaper has consistently championed, in broad outline, the Magidor Commission report, which recommended that the Knesset be elected by a hybrid method of district and proportional representation. The country is anyway administratively divided into 17 districts by the Interior Ministry. Key to reinvigorating the system with faith and legitimacy is giving people the sense that they have an "address" for their grievances - that they are someone's constituents. No such reform, however, is possible so long as small parties with narrow parochial interests stand in the way. They are intent on blocking alterations to the system that gives them their disproportionate clout. Yet the major parties, all of which ostensibly support electoral reform, can't afford to antagonize the smaller factions, whose support they need to cobble together a governing coalition majority. Only if these big parties collaborate could the threshold of votes required for Knesset entry be raised as a first step toward creating more stable governments, which are the prerequisite to fundamental electoral reform. And yet most of us intuitively realize that fixing the way we select our elected officials alone is not enough. That to return faith and legitimacy to our politics - repairing the system's homeostatic capabilities - Israel's political, judicial, media, business and spiritual elites need to come to their senses and start acting responsibly. They need to approach power not as an end in itself, but as a means of fulfilling their fiduciary duties to the people. Their failure to do so has paved the way for counter-elites like Avigdor Lieberman to exploit what American historian Richard Hofstadter described as a paranoid style of politics: overheated, over-suspicious, over-aggressive and grandiose. Only a combination of structural reforms accompanied by elite responsibility and a renewed commitment to civic virtue can mend the system and give us elections that produce what Israel urgently needs: governments with a mandate and a capacity to lead.