After Years of Deep Political Alienation, a Reawakening of the Israeli Public

Published on +972 Magazine

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.

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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.

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