The dismal rise of personality politics

Israel’s large parties lie in shambles, felled by the contempt of disloyal politicians. This damaging trend must be curbed.

Moshe_Arens_cropped-150x150By Moshe Arens

Long gone are the days when two large political parties – Likud and Labor – together gained more than two-thirds of the seats in the Knesset in the national elections. During those times the municipalities were likewise controlled by either one of the large parties. After the Likud defeated the Labor Party in the national elections and came to power in 1977, it went on to win a major victory in the municipal elections the following year, with Likud candidates defeating Labor candidates in the mayoralty elections in most of the large cities.

In an electoral system which is based on voting for party lists, rather than individual candidates, you might think that this is the way it should be. As a matter of fact, this is the way it is in countries with electoral systems similar to Israel’s, such as Germany. Even in countries in which candidates are elected by direct vote, but where large parties dominate the political scene, such as the United States, France or England, it is the large parties’ candidates that are predominant at the municipal level as well.

That is not the way it is in Israel anymore, as was proven in the recent municipal elections. Some would say this is all to the good. After all, people should vote for a mayoral candidate because they believe he will make a good manager of his city, that he will improve the educational system, improve sanitation on the city’s streets, bring down the cost of housing. In other words, be good at solving the local problems, which have little connection with most of the national problems. What difference does it make if the mayor favors or opposes the “two-state solution,” is prepared for territorial compromise or isn’t, as long as he is good at running the city.

But not quite. Parties that aim to win national elections and control the nation’s course in the years to come should have a good understanding of local and municipal problems that are part and parcel of the problems facing the nation. That understanding is gained by politicians who serve at the municipal level. This is not to say that every prime minister must also have been a mayor, or have served on a municipal council in the past, but it is important that at least some of the ministers have gained political experience at the municipal level before becoming cabinet members.

But no less important than that, participation in municipal politics is a proper preparation and a stepping stone to national politics, and political parties quite naturally can draw their future national leadership from those of their members who have learned skills at the municipal level and gained experience managing municipalities. Political parties that lack this experience in their ranks are likely to be less effective in dealing with national affairs. There is little doubt that the increasing absence of our parties from the municipal scene in recent years is linked to and symptomatic of their decline on the national scene.

Responsibility for this decline lies with the leadership of these parties. And the immediate cause is not hard to find. Quite a few of our political leaders have made it clear that they consider themselves bigger than their parties, and even “too big” for the parties they head. Like shifting sands, some of them have moved from one party to the next, refusing to abide by the decisions arrived at in their parties by proper democratic procedures. The contempt that this kind of behavior demonstrates for the party and its membership cannot but lead to the party’s decline.

It will take a clear demonstration of leadership by party leaders, including a reaffirmation of their loyalty to the party and its membership, to stem the large parties’ continuing deterioration, a trend which is boding no good for the Israeli political scene. Artificial mergers are hardly the cure for this disease.

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