The British Mandate hasn’t (quite) ended

Any serious proposal for government reform must address Israel’s glaring democratic deficit at the district level.

Tower Bridge and the River Thames, London (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tower Bridge and the River Thames, London
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Take up the White Man’s burden – Send forth the best ye breed – Go send your sons to exile To serve your captives’ need To wait in heavy harness On fluttered folk and wild – Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half devil and half child” – “The White Man’s Burden,” by Rudyard Kipling
It’s not entirely clear whether Rudyard Kipling was critical of white supremacist ideology or enthusiastically supportive of it. What is clear, however, is that his iconic poem “The White Man’s Burden” is reflective of the widespread belief among Western colonial powers that they were God’s gift to the developing world. In the minds of the British officers who controlled, at times, as much as 1/4 of the world’s surface, they were destined to educate and enlighten the primitive peoples over whom they ruled.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the same arrogant attitude exhibited in India and Africa also guided the British officers who ruled over Israel before the Jewish people achieved independence in 1948. What will surprise most Israelis is that large chunks of the colonial legal system are still very much in place. Nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to urban planning.
Israelis are accustomed to believe that their affairs are regulated by two levels of government – the national government, headed by the prime minister, and their local government, headed by their mayor or regional council. In reality there is, in fact, a third level sandwiched between the two – the districts. They are, for almost all intents and purposes, fully functioning governments.
And they are run and managed nearly entirely by unelected civil servants.
Most political systems in the Western world have counties or regional authorities between the municipalities and the state government (aside from federal government, which is a fourth level in some countries).
Israel is no exception. What is exceptional is the democratic deficit at this level, which places the power in the hands of bureaucrats instead of elected officials.
In most other countries, the citizenry gets to elect county officials as well as state officials and local officials.
Citizens of Israel do not. In Israel, county/district government is camouflaged as the “District Planning Committees.” The District Committees are made up of representatives of various government offices, and are headed by “District Directors” who are senior bureaucrats in the Interior Ministry.
Whenever a Local Planning Committee, headed by the mayor, wants to authorize a project, it almost always has to be submitted to the District Planning Committee for approval. If the District Committee doesn’t like it – it gets shelved. But by no means are the District Committees mere rubber stamps. They wield immense power and they are not afraid to use it. For example, the Jerusalem District Committee recently rejected a proposal to drill for oil shale in the Beit Shemesh area, even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally endorsed the project.
On the flip side, headlines have recently been made by the Tel Aviv District Committee as it steamrolled the residents of Givat Amal, rezoning the area for dense housing and throwing the residents onto the street without offering them compensation. The screams of MKs Ilan Gilon (Meretz) and Ayelet Sheked (Bayit Yehudi), who came to Tel Aviv to protest the project, were of no avail. The Committees do as they please.
This outrageously anti-democratic system is in place courtesy of the British Mandate. Under British colonial law, the “natives” were allowed to democratically elect municipal officials, but those officials had to answer to district commissioners, all of whom were British officers personally appointed by the high commissioner. Upon termination of the mandate, this system essentially stayed the same, although the title “district commissioner” was replaced with “district director.”
With the High Commissioner gone, the interior minister was vested with the authority to appoint district directors. This is wanting for several reasons. The Interior Ministry is often dangled as bait during coalition talks, and often falls into the hands of one sectorial party or another. Further, district directors are appointed from within the ministry by internal tender, thus limiting the pool of potential candidates and closing the position off from outside community leaders. In addition, their terms are not limited like those of elected politicians. Finally, experience shows that, since they never need to face the citizenry at the ballot box, district directors often take action that contravenes the will of the public.
In his address to the Likud convention last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu blasted the state’s archaic political system and the lack of elected governments’ ability to advance national projects. He rightly identified the problem as the outdated political system which has been in place since before independence, and his proposal for change has become a centerpiece of the Likud party’s election campaign. But what holds true for national government holds even truer for regional government. Any serious proposal for government reform must address Israel’s glaring democratic deficit at the district level.
The writer is a law student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a paralegal at Y. Raveh & Co.