Ariel Finkelstein
Ariel Finkelstein

Enough talk about decentralization – it’s time for action

Its heterogeneity and ideological diversity are the main characteristics of the new government, and also one of its major weaknesses. There are good reasons why its leaders announced that they will focus on reforms of paramount importance for the country’s day-to-day functioning and on making people’s lives better, while setting aside matters with heavy ideological baggage that could threaten the coalition’s stability and survival.

A comprehensive reform to delegate power to local government could be the new government’s banner accomplishment. One thing is certain: there is a crying need for such decentralization in Israel.

According to various indexes published by the World Bank and the OECD, when it comes to the powers enjoyed by local governments, Israel is one of the most centralized countries in the western world—if not the most centralized. This is reflected in the limited autonomy allowed local authorities in Israel in diverse areas, including finances, human resources, education, and transportation.

Remarks by several of the new ministers reveal a broad consensus among the coalition parties on the urgent need for change on this front. In her maiden speech as Minister of the Interior minister, Ayelet Shaked, drawing on Jewish tradition, said that she hopes “to adopt Jethro’s advice to Moses that he delegate authority.” “Jethro,” she said, “proved to be a successful organizational consultant.” She plans to follow that example and delegate powers to the local authorities. Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, also, emphasized the need to delegate power to local authorities in the field of transportation and to enhance the status of local government overall. And Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton announced her resolve “to dismantle centralization in the Education Ministry.” In her opinion, “things would look different if local government was given more power.”

These statements did not emerge from the void. Politicians are supposed to identify the currents of public opinion, and they seem to have figured out which way the wind is blowing. The COVID-19 pandemic made Israelis aware of the potential of local government and the limitations of the central government. This was reflected in public opinion: a survey conducted by the Viterbi Center at the Israel Democracy Institute last November found that 71% of the Israeli public supports the delegation of powers by government ministries to local authorities, while only 15% are opposed. Similarly, the public’s confidence in local government exceeds that in the agencies of national government. According to the Israel Democracy Index 2020, 61% of the public has confidence in the local authority in which they reside as compared with only 28% who trust the national government.

Let’s hope that this time there will not be only words, but also deeds. In previous governments as well the education minister and director general of the Transport Ministry spoke about the need to delegate powers to local authorities—but did very little to make this happen. For years, the outgoing Minister of the Interior, Aryeh Deri, spoke about the need for decentralization, but he too made no significant impact on this front during the five years he held the portfolio. Note too that the coalition agreements for the new government are silent about the status of local government.

It is crucial to understand that the wide gap between lofty statements about the delegation of powers to local authorities and continued centralization is not the result of bureaucratic obstacles standing in the way of reform. The culprit is the aversion of ministers to surrendering any of their authority and power. Their control of local governments is one of their main sources of power, and they understand that a power once delegated will never be recouped. So, despite all the fine words, when push comes to shove, they find excuses to maintain the current situation.

Decentralization reform will take place only if there is widespread understanding that the current situation is untenable, and only if the public exerts unwavering pressure to make ministers realize that the time has come for a sweeping change. By now everyone seems to realize that there must be a fundamental revision of the status of local government. This is why Shaked, Michaeli, and Shasha-Biton must understand that the public will judge them not only by the number of committees, documents, and media statements on the need for decentralization, but also, and mainly, by what they actually do about it.

About the Author
Ariel Finkelstein is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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