OpinionIsrael News

Real democracy in Israel requires a bottom-up approach

Israeli citizens need to be involved in the decision-making process.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a discussion and a vote in the Knesset assembly hall, on May 15, 2023. Photo by Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a discussion and a vote in the Knesset assembly hall, on May 15, 2023. Photo by Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90.
Gary Schiff
Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based resource consultant and guide connecting Israel and the United States.

Israel’s current government is focused on modifying the judiciary so the Supreme Court reflects the values of the nation. This is a necessary and important change. An equally important change would be to empower Israeli citizens through a bottom-up approach that enables direct participation in government decisions.

Unlike much of the West, Israel lacks significant public oversight and input into government policy. There is also no regional representation in the Knesset. As a result, the central government makes decisions with minimal consultation. Even the court system lacks public participation. Americans are often shocked to learn that Israel has no jury trials. Public involvement as it exists in most Western democracies is, for the most part, not possible in Israel.

I recall that when I served as a U.S. Forest Service District Ranger, a director of Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (JNF-KKL), Zevi Kahanov, visited us. He accompanied me as I presented our plans for timber use and recreation on National Forest land in Alpine County, California. The locally elected Alpine County Board of Supervisors commented on our plans and we pledged to take those comments into consideration. Zevi turned to me after the meeting and said, “Unfortunately, you wouldn’t see this in Israel.”

Zevi was right. For example, wind farms are being built on the Golan Heights that are wildly unpopular among the area’s residents—both Druze and Jews. Were there initial meetings with local communities when the project was first considered? Did the officials in charge carefully consider public comments on alternative possibilities for tower locations, placement, size and height of wind turbines and so on? So far as I know, not really.

Throughout Jerusalem, a significant number of parking spaces are being removed in order to create bike paths. This narrows the space provided for vehicles to one lane in each direction without significant pull-outs, even in front of schools. This might be a good thing, but did the government consult with the citizenry before plans were developed? Unfortunately, no.

The Ministry of Education is setting curriculum standards and educational programming for each sector—religious, secular, etc. Is there a mechanism for parents to share their concerns about these policies, such as elected local school boards? Again, no.

Organizations that are run by states and localities in the U.S. and other Western democracies—such as law enforcement, fire suppression, education, etc.—are run at the national level in Israel. Government policies in general are usually set nationally as well. When public input is sought, it is usually as a pro-forma requirement after a proposal is already on the way to implementation. There is little room for regional or local influence on government decision-making.

To some extent, the courts are the last stop on the “democracy train.” If conflicts cannot be worked out locally, they end up in the courts. Yet even in the court system, there is no opportunity for a trial by one’s peers. All decisions are the purview of unelected judges. The concept of a jury trial is foreign and shunned by those in positions of authority.

Regional representation in the Knesset, even if only partial, would be major step towards much-needed change. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the current political parties would give up even a handful of Knesset seats for this purpose.

Rabbi Yitzhak Breitowitz, a renowned senior lecturer at Or Samayach, has pointed out that God is “taking public input” from the angels when we read “let us make man.” Surely, if the ruler of the universe is taking public input, we should adopt the same approach here in Israel.    

Real democracy means the citizens are decision-makers. They make these decisions both by voting and by direct participation. It is a bottom-up process. If the current government really wants to make Israel more democratic, it needs to begin by creating more opportunities for Israelis to decide what is best for Israel, rather than leaving those decisions solely to unelected government officials.

Legislation should be passed to enable public involvement in policy-making on more than a pro forma basis. There should be more oversight and advisory boards composed of local citizens. Ultimately, this could have as much of an impact on Israel’s democratic character as the necessary changes to the judicial system.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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