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Mideast Briefing: \"Free Shalit,\" the \"Tent Cities\" and Israeli Governance

Mideast Briefing: “Free Shalit,” the “Tent Cities” and Israeli Governance

Ed Rettig, Director, AJC Jerusalem

October 17, 2011

Large crowds demonstrate in public squares and camp on boulevards for months at a time. Hundreds of thousands participate without violence. Charismatic leaders express ideals and commitment. Media is charmed. The test of outcomes indicates that the demonstrators impressively changed government policy in security and economics.

The Shalit exchange is expected within days. More than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners are to be released in return for one Israeli soldier. The relentless five-year campaign led by his dignified, charismatic family became a movement of support encompassing hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

Also, the economy faces considerable restructuring in the aftermath of the Trajtenberg Commission Report, adopted by the government in response to a half a year of the “Tent City” demonstrations that drew in hundreds of thousands. If carried out, the proposals will counteract years of entrepreneur-focused policies very different from the social democratic traditions of the first decades of the State.

The Free Shalit and Tent City movements represent both opportunity and challenge to Israeli governance. Handled with vision the mass movements could offset dysfunctions of Israel’s limping parliamentary system. The Knesset was designed to represent parties and not individual voters. The founders of geographically tiny Israel did not recognize the importance of regional representation. They opted for a national constituency structured on party and ideology. Balancing factors made the system work in the early 1950s, most notably the very small population where “everyone knew everyone else or knew someone who did.” Additionally, the parties used to play a major mediating role between citizens and their government, providing services including healthcare, unions and sports. Today, with a population of nearly eight million, and those services either nationalized or privatized, political parties are little more than machines whose internal political shenanigans seem irrelevant to most Israelis. That created a vacuum filled by the Shalit and Tent City movements.

Given the growing disconnect between the parliament and the public, it should come as no surprise that both major public protests share a deep conviction that the interests of the common person will be ignored by the political leadership unless their feet are held to the fire. In the case of Shalit there is a history of allegations of failure to prioritize the welfare of the captive Israeli soldier (and the influence of the strong Jewish tradition of pidyon shevuim, the redemption of captives). The tragedy of the disappeared, presumed dead, Air Force pilot Ron Arad, who was captured when his plane was downed 25 years ago in Lebanon, continues to haunt the conscience of the nation. There are good grounds to believe that more competent conduct of negotiations that would have prioritized his redemption from his captors over other state interests at an early stage might have saved his life.

In the case of the economic protests, there is incontrovertible evidence that over the last generation Israel privatized its formerly centralized economy in a way that left behind majorities among its middle and lower income populations, the “bottom 70 percent.” Again, the perception is that state interests, this time economic ones, took precedent over the welfare of citizens. In both cases the protesters express deep longing for the earlier Israel’s solidarity-based society.

One can look at the Occupy Wall Street movement and the mass demonstrations of the Arab Spring and draw facile comparisons, but these are not analytically helpful. Unlike the United States, Israel has a long tradition of social democratic governance. Israel has been characterized by a strong ethic of solidarity in the past. The protest movements indicate that this is still a powerful force outside the governing elites. The demonstrators draw sustenance and legitimization from that tradition of solidarity. Also, unlike the Arab Spring, the demonstrations are not a demand for democracy but participation in it. It is not at all new that Israelis gather to petition their government for redress of grievances. A somewhat similar popular protest movement brought down the government of Golda Meir in 1974. What are new are the scale of participation and the fact that two of these movements ran in parallel over the last half-year without diminishing each other. One senses that a corner has been turned and the public will not tolerate certain things any further.

Faced with the release of Shalit and the partial success of the tent cities reflected in the Trajtenberg report, two questions arise. First, in both cases the demonstrators had a hard time articulating specifics. In the cruel equation of prisoner exchanges, all know that it is not a question of whether released prisoners will revert to violence, but when. Every large prisoner exchange since the 1980s has shown that over 50 percent become recidivists. The Free Shalit movement has only one credible answer. That is the argument that the demands of solidarity with a soldier sent to battle on our behalf trump considerations of the risks we must take in order to free him. A majority of Israelis find this persuasive.

A similar lack of clarity afflicts the tent city movement. It is not clear how unified the demonstrators are, when it comes to the questions of meta-policy. Some activists are more left wing, advocating the rebuilding of a welfare state based on Western European models. These remain unsatisfied with the reforms proposed in the report commissioned by the government and prepared by a team led by Professor Manuel of Tel Aviv University. They intend to continue the social protest. Others indicate a preference for a more entrepreneurial model, although with tighter state supervision to avoid favoritism, corruption and over-concentration of wealth in too few hands. The Trajtenberg report (whose details lie outside the scope of this commentary) leans toward the second approach. It remains to be seen whether the implementation of the report satisfies the broader public.

The more difficult long term question for Israeli democracy is whether the deeply emotional appeal of mass demonstrations will necessarily lead to good policy. The obvious danger is that overreaction in favor of the demonstrators on the part of populist politicians could lead to popular but ultimately poor policies. The Free Shalit and Tent Cities movements illustrate structural limitations of public activism. The hard work of turning passionately held ideas into practical policy needs to be done by government if society is to benefit. On their own, without active engagement with government, the passionate mass organization and participation will yield few results.

But the challenge is how to connect the energy in the street with the legislative, executive and judicial expertise found in government. In the archetypal checks and balances of Madisonian democratic governance the branches keep each other in line, each by assuring its own interests. Thus, no single element of governance can become dictatorial or persist in failed policies over the long haul. If Israel’s leaders find the wisdom to respect the protest movements as the unmediated voice of much of the public we may find Israeli democracy profiting from new and more effective checks and balances and, therefore, from more responsive and successful governance.