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Israeli public re-awakens after years of political alienation

By Don Futterman

In a country where no one listens, with a government system designed for maximum opacity, it was unprecedented to see Israeli citizens invited to a public hearing to tell our leaders what our national priorities ought to be in order to achieve social justice. The government-appointed committee charged with holding a dialogue with citizens in order to create policy recommendations for social and economic wrapped up the listening portion of its work today in fitting fashion by meeting with representatives of the J14 protest movement.

Those who did not trust the government-commissioned process headed by Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg and his committee of experts in Jerusalem, had the choice of attending instead an alternative hearing at Tel Aviv University sponsored by Tel Aviv University’s Harold Hartog School of Government and Policy and Shatil, headed by an alternative committee of experts chaired by Prof. Yossi Yonah. Statements or position papers delivered to the Trachtenberg forum were uploaded, inviting further comment, and additional hearings in other parts of the country and on the web are planned for the alternative process.

Public participation in policy discussions in Israel is extremely rare. While most of the 300,000 citizens who took to the streets for demonstrations in August did not take part in any hearing, well over a thousand separate policy statements were received by the Trachtenberg Committee. It’s an unwieldy process, but potentially a very democratic one.

Israelis have no direct political representation on the national level. Those who can afford it might hire a lobbyist, or if they are desperate enough, may form their own NGO. Party activists or those who belong to a narrowly focused interest group (settlers, ultra-orthodox, contractors, etc.) might have some impact on political decision-making.

But huge swathes of the Israeli population feel they have no one to talk to, that their concerns go unheard. The resulting frustration and sense of impotence leads many to disconnect from political life, but it can also lead to eruptions of public anger, something national leaders presumably would choose to avoid. Israeli governments have long been able to ignore protests on social issues, because come election time, the Jewish mainstream would undermine its influence on social and economic priorities, or on any deeper debate over societal values not having to do directly with the Occupation, by splitting its vote over settlements and the Palestinians. Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of a change.

I’m not getting misty-eyed about the dawning of a new era. The largest public protest in Israel’s history in early August was not enough to convince Knesset members to interrupt their summer recess, or even attend a special session on the protest. (They must have been exhausted from passing such a massive amount of terrible legislation in the spring.)

But if the members of the public get used to taking a longer, harder look at policy issues than can be summed up in a campaign slogan or name-calling, this could lead to a revolution in the Israeli psyche. Consider the unprecedented number of planned and spontaneous public education events taking place every day, with teach-ins at protest tents up and down the country, and competing forums at the same hour on different streets of Tel Aviv.  Community activists, NGO advocates and socially committed academics who have been howling about the need to reboot our economic, housing, environmental and education priorities, suddenly have an audience ready to talk to into the night. Added to these are the public hearing websites, webcasts of events and interviews sharing face-to-face meetings with cyberspace, and innovative attempts to make reams of budget, planning and policy data available to the public on the internet in comprehensible and digestible formats.

It is easy to be cynical. The Trachtenberg committee was not formed following a search for the very best mechanism for integrating public participation into policy making, but as an effort to defuse the mass protest. It could turn out to be a government manipulation, as some protest leaders have charged, an attempt to co-opt the protesters’ critique, a sham or a show to mollify the crowd. Even with the best intentions, public participation in policy decision-making can be messy, unnecessarily tendentious, or be conducted as an afterthought, too late to change decisions that have already been made.

But it has been a long time since anyone in Israeli national government even pretended to listen to members of the public, let alone to solicit their advice.

If the members of Trachtenberg’s committee seriously engage with the proposals they are receiving, if they make coherent recommendations that respond to the deep concerns that drove people into the streets, and if the government listens, this could be a turning point for public participation in Israel. Trachtenberg will fall short if his committee of experts follows the government’s course and fails to reflect the values underlying the protest, or if the government simply ignores their recommendations, as Netanyahu’s comments that he is not bound by the Committee’s recommendations suggests it might.

Whatever the results of the hastily conceived Trachtenberg hearings, protesters should not get discouraged, but build on all of the recent efforts to create new and effective mechanisms for public participation – mechanisms that come into policy processes early enough to have an impact, that are broad enough to reflect public sentiment, and rigorous enough to engage the experts, leaders or committee members who will make the decisions.

The beauty of this experiment in public education and participation is that it is not linked to a particular policy decision with a specific deadline; it has a beginning, but not necessarily an end.  The 300,000 people who marched in the streets, and the thousands who have been camping out or who took the trouble to state their case, to attend a street-side panel debate or to educate themselves about housing policies or wealth concentration, should become the core of a newly engaged electorate. If our leaders don’t like it, we can throw the bums out.

We are witnessing the intersection between social media and town hall style direct democracy. Like the July 14th protest in general, we don’t know where it will lead yet. As it continues to evolve, we should make sure that public participation and public education become new norms, the new normal, of our democratic society.

Don Futterman is the program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation which promotes social and economic justice in Israel.

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    1. Ben Israel

      Demostrations come and go. Public meetings tha are not controlled and everyone says whatever they have on their mind don’t have any influence. There is only ONE constitutional change that can make a difference and that is to go to a consituency system for the election of the Knesset instead of the current proportional-party list system. That will force the Knesset members to be resonsive to their voters. It will also tend to keep extremists out of the Knesset. The main problem is gerrymandering…i.e. what do you do about geographically concentrated minority groups, such as the Haredim in Benei Brak and the Arabs in the Triangle and the Galil? Do you divide them up among several constituencies, or concentrate them into a few electoral zones? However, I don’t see the Knesset voting to change the current system which has been so good for them. Only sustained public pressure ON THIS ONE ISSUE can make a difference, but there is no precedent for public action of this type, and the scattershot character of these demonstrations won’t do the trick. Where will the change come from?

      Reply to Comment
    2. weinstein henry

      WOW, another miracle: I fully agree with Ben Israel – whoever wrote today this comment under this Hasbara code name -, what does that mean?! Is Bibi more than over fed-up to have to form coalitions with a myriad of pseudo-religious bigoted’s lunatic factions?
      I wonder sometimes: is it you, Benjamin?!
      Could be.
      Anyway, I fully agree with U, Uncle Ben: the Israeli electoral system is worse than obsolete, it looks like an infernal torture machine which seems to have been invented by the scenarists of the Saw saga.
      As a result the Israelis don’t have the democratic power to give by their votes a political mandate to a majority party to perform a policy in the national interest; actually, they don’t even get a decent opposition with the current obsololete system!
      Israeli citizens are left with the ‘power’ to sponsor politicians, mostly
      ex-IDF ‘charismatic’ leaders & pseudo-religious lunatics & ex-nightclub bouncers. That’s what General De Gaulle called “le régime des partis”,
      i.e when the pseudo-democratic 100% proportionnal-party system is actually designed to prevent the citizens to rule their rulers.
      In France the last real revolution was made not by students in Mai 68 but by General De Gaulle in 1962 with the (successful, despite the opposition of all the French politicians) referendum about the election by the French citizens of the Président de la République aka King of France au suffrage universel direct: since 1962, we have at least the power to choose a reformist leader – if we are lucky enough to find one! – and get rid by the way of the old guard.
      The French electoral system is still mainly majority system, a good system for a patriotic nation like France. But our wicked politicians have succeeded – without asking our permission, of course – to bring back the proportionnal-party system for the European elections; as a result the French citizens in their majority don’t vote for these fake elections designed only to give well-paid seats to sub-politicians and they despise the European parliament, non mais!
      Food for thought, Sabras!

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben Israel

      I see you have jumped on DY-Shirin and Taoist’s bandwagons and have started applying epithets and nicknames to what I write. Please explain to me why you “progressives” feel it is necessary to do so. I could just as easily call what many write here as “HAMAS propaganda”, but I don’t. When you guys dismiss what I write as “hasbara” is it because you don’t think I really believe what I write? Most Israelis are closer to my way of thinking thay yours….just look at the election results over the past several decades.

      Reply to Comment
    4. weinstein henry

      @ Ben Israel (whoever he is)
      Actually I really wonder how many different persons are writing under this code name: because I’m not under-educated in linguistics and because I noticed the intellectual level varied from VERY HIGH (history of Israel, past Israeli & Middle-East politics) to VERY LOW (present social protests in Israel, political science & history of political ideas in the rest of the world).
      How it could be the same Ben Israel who depicted some days ago a Communist Revolution in the making about the Tent protests with laughable arguments, and the Ben Israel who replied more recently so brillantly to Akiva Orr?
      Not to mention your productivity on +972…
      Supposing you are a single person and not working for Hasbara, how it comes you explain so well the Israeli govnerment’s official views, telling us for instance with authority to not worry about an assault on Gaza?
      But don’t get me wrong, whoever you are, I learned a lot on Israeli politics reading your best comments, and I’m grateful to (how many of?) you for that.
      Right or wrong, Ben Israel, I wasn’t teasing you tonight because I really think I read the official line when I read your comments; and so that’s why your critical comment about the electoral system attracted all my attention…

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben Israel

      I am one person. “Ben Israel” is a pen-name, it is another way of saying “Jew”. It is laughable for people to think that I am some sort of apologist for the gov’t, because I am actually VERY skeptical of the gov’t and the establishment. During both the Lebanon II and Cast Lead wars I refused to look at the TV or listen to the radio for analysis (other that brief radio reports just to keep abreast of the basic facts). I certainly have no patience for listening to these hyper-politicized, bloated ex-IDF Generals who usually speak nonsense. This may surprise you since I am a “Orthodox Religious/pro-settler right-winger” but I don’t hold the IDF as an institution in very high regard. Traditionally, the political “Right” was considered more militaristic and more supportive of the use of military power but this is changing. However, one of the big reasons I don’t have much regard for the IDF high command is because the IDF is super-politicized and good officers are overlooked for promotion because they are on the “wrong side” politically. This dates all the way back to Ben-Gurion who chose officers for their political reliability. In the US, for instance, officers KEEP THEIR MOUTHS SHUT about their political views.
      To briefly sum up my views….I reject the claim that “Herzl created Zionism”, “Ben Gurion or the MAPAI created the state of Israel”. As I see it, it was the “Jewish People” that did these things, and it is with this view that I identify, not with the political/military Establishment of the state which seems exhausted and is increasingly discredited. This does not mean I am pessimistic about the future….not at all, it is a lot of individual people who are building the country up and deserve the credit for making Israel one of the most dynamic states in the world and which is pulling farther and farther ahead of the Arab states which have far more natural resources.

      Reply to Comment
    6. weinstein henry

      @ Ben Israel
      Thanks for your kind & genuine answer, and I apologize if I ever hurt you with my quick-witted agent provocateur way to write (my Dad was a great fan of the Marx Brothers, and he let me watch with him late broadcast of Marx Brothers’ subtitled movies on French TV in the 70s when I was a kid, among many other wittty viral things he transmitted to me with jubilation).
      Be certain I always read with great interest your historical corrections & remarks and factual explanations & critics.
      It’s good to know you a little better and thus to have a closer understanding on your skeptical views on politics.
      Personnally I don’t trust at all the Left-Right packaging when it comes to analyze the real political-socio-economic issues. For instance, the greatest reformist in the history of modern France is De Gaulle, even if he came from a very conservative background.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ben Israel

      Your comments about De Gaulle remind me of Paul Johnson’s book “Modern Times” in which he pointed out all the great reformers of history were conservatives, and he included De Gaulle in the list. It was the Conservative Disreali who gave all men the right to vote, it was the anti-abolitionist, moderate Abraham Lincoln who ended slavery in the US and it was moderate Democrat Lyndon Johnson who ended legal racial discrimination in the US. Paul Johnson’s point was that the “revolutionaries” who say “let’s overturn everything and start from the beginning” end up usually leaving a disaster in their wake, e.g. the French and Russian revolutions. That is why I am opposed to these mass demonstrations in Israel…they can not ultimately do any real good. Real reforms come from concerned citizens who work day in and day out on a grassroots level, without pay or compensation because they believe in what they are doing. I am willing to bet that the self-appointed leaders of these demonstrations will end up running for the Knesset and if they get in they will never be heard from again because they will be too busy lining their pockets.

      Reply to Comment
    8. weinstein henry

      @ Ben Israel
      But once again, Ben Israel, the recent mass demonstrations in Israel have nothing to do with French or Russian revolutions: I mean, people are not starving and fighting for their freedom; whatever one can think about J14 movement, it’s not a revolutionary insurrection!
      It seems to me these mass protests occured because the Israeli citizens have no other means to force their political establishment to tackle the real social issues. What happens to my opinion is the present political & electoral system is incapable to address the demands of the citizens and blocks the blossoming of Israeli society. The good news is Israeli society is not at all in crisis, on the contrary the protests & debates prove that the Israelis want to build a stronger nation, more united. In this sense, the present turmoil is first and foremost a political representation’s crisis: I mean, if the Israeli citizens had the power to vote for reforms knowing they have this power when they vote, they wouldn’t have to demonstrate for social issues which are regulated in Europe by elections.
      Israel view from Europe is a baby in politics with no constitution & Fundamental Laws, a young teenager lost in ideology who don’t realize he don’t have much to learn from his very recent history when it comes to address internal issues. What strikes me the more is that you have only the USA in mind to visualize democracy & Law making, and it’s not a good thing since the American political system is to my opinion totally obsolete & corrupted, and the USA stuck in a deep moral crisis. Most of the American citizens are desesperate because they are powerless: they are left with a constitution dating from 1776 and politicians & tycoons totally out of control.

      Reply to Comment