Is this democracy?

If a lawmaker doesn’t face the public before whom he and his opponents can present initiatives, defend their records and be judged, then there is no bond between them.

Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Dov Lipman)
Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Dov Lipman)

Only a few days after declaring that despite disappointing election results, “It is clear... that Israeli citizens want me to serve as prime minister,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was already lamenting the fact that he would have to build yet another coalition of disparate parts, stating, “It cannot be that the country facing the most challenges should suffer from instability and a weak electoral system.”

Similarly, writing in these pages last week, Jerusalem Post columnist David Newman bemoaned the fact that due to our electoral system, the next government “will not have any clear direction to undertake during the ensuing four years” and that our government formation process has made Israel a “laughing stock.”
True enough. But in all the talk about electoral reform and why it is necessary, one element has been sorely missing. Perhaps that is because it is not an easy truth to admit: Israeli citizens don’t elect representatives and an essential component of democracy is therefore missing.
Sure, we have elections. Yes, we are a lone democracy surrounded by dictatorships and dictatorships posing as democracies.
All of our citizens have equal rights. Even non-citizens have a basic level of rights protections. We have an independent judiciary which can enforce a bill of rights (Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty). We can pat ourselves on the back for all these achievements.
But the first defense of the people’s rights and their interests is not a bill of rights. A bill of rights, in a democracy, is the last line of defense (short of violence or lawbreaking) for some of the people against the rest of the people, as the majority’s will is expressed in laws and regulations made pursuant to those laws.
THE PEOPLE’S first line of defense, however, is the fact that the government represents them. This means that those making the laws do so on the people’s behalf – not out of the benevolence which the noble elite might feel from time to time – but because the people are their masters and they are the people’s agents. They know they are liable to be held accountable by the people and act accordingly in the people’s interest.
In our electoral system, however, we cannot say that all else being even, those who make the laws fear that what bills they present, how they vote, what positions they take, what agendas they push, in short that what they do or fail to do in office and how the public feels about them will directly jeopardize their continuance in office.
Granted, voters’ wrath is considered by some politicians to a certain extent. Yair Lapid, for example, is keenly aware that the voters who gave him 19 mandates to work with will not tolerate certain things, such as, in his own words, his sitting with haredim in the government. And Netanyahu may from time to time regret that he did not take more aggressive action a range of domestic issues such as “equalizing the burden.”
But even that fear is limited. A party may not gain as many mandates as hoped, but the chairman will likely remain in office.
And in time, newcomers like Lapid will learn what many others have, namely that the public that elected you does not need to be the public that reelects you.
And party chairpersons make up only a small fraction of the Knesset. There are 108 MKs who are not Knesset faction leaders.
But do they fear the public’s wrath at the polls? No. Because the public is only a part of the equation that decides their fate and practically, because of the electoral system, it is the minor part.
TAKE THE two American candidates who made a name for themselves during the previous election – one of whom “made it” into the Knesset (the very term speaks volumes).
After being involved in protests against local religious extremists, rabbi (now MK) Dov Lipman joined Rabbi Haim Amsalem’s Am Shalem party. The other, Jeremy Gimpel, the host of a popular Web-television show, joined the Bayit Yehudi party to compete in its first primaries.
They both worked hard to appeal to the public.
Gimpel registered thousands to Bayit Yehudi, competed in the primaries, ranked ninth and got bumped further down the list to 14 due to the merger with the National Union. Despite his low ranking, Gimpel campaigned hard for the party among English-speakers. In the final weeks before the election, polls showed that Bayit Yehudi was likely to win big, potentially scoring 15 or more spots.
Lipman was not as successful, at least at the outset. Rabbi Amsalem’s star did not continue to rise following Amsalem’s break with Shas. But Lipman was offered a political lifeline and was able to join Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. He too campaigned hard leading up to elections, despite his own low ranking of 17, which polls showed to be less likely to make it into Knesset than Gimpel’s spot with Bayit Yehudi.
In the end, Yesh Atid won 19 mandates, almost double what was expected, and Bayit Yehudi won only 12 spots. Lipman made it in. Gimpel did not. This is not to say one was more deserving than the other.
Nor is it to say there is anything wrong with election results defying polls or voters changing their opinion in the final days of an election.
What is wrong here is that neither of these candidates’ own records or positions or how the public felt about them mattered much in whether they would become lawmakers. Lipman might thank the public.
He might aspire to be “Beit Shemesh’s Congressman.” If he wants to stay in office, however, Lapid is the only constituent he must keep happy. As for the public, the reality is – that’s Lapid’s problem.
OF COURSE, in all democratic systems some politicians get lucky or are elected merely because of their party affiliation or because a popular personality endorsed them. But only in the party-list system is such a phenomenon institutionalized. In Israel, the vast majority of MKs will only have achieved and retained their positions by virtue of their party or party leader.
Except perhaps in very small parties, never will the typical MK face the public directly and repeatedly.
The problem here is about much more than accountability as an ideal for achieving more efficient government. It’s about that bond between the lawmaker and the people which makes him their representative. If a lawmaker doesn’t face the public, and more than that, a definite portion of the public, before whom he and his opponents can present initiatives, defend their records and be judged, then there is no bond between them. Not being chosen by public, a lawmaker cannot be said to represent them. And government without representation... is that democracy? The writer is an attorney admitted to practice law in New York and Israel.