Peres, grassroots organizations, and electoral reform

I would like to discuss a session that I was a part of with President Shimon Peres, from a political perspective.

President Peres created an intimate session with bloggers at the recent “Facing Tomorrow” Presidential conference. He offered that we lead the direction of the session through our own questions and answers. Being writers with interests, there was complete randomness to the questions asked to our President, ranging from Iran to Pollard, to what he wanted for his next birthday and what he would pray for at the Kotel (Western Wall).

I was able to ask a question myself. I have interest as well, namely the success of our lobby, Olim for Improving Israel, which fills an empty void of organizing the voice of olim-by-choice in Israel, forwarding oleh rights in Israel, and helping to reconnect Israel and the greater Jewish world through policies relating to olim-by-choice. Through President Peres’ absolute non-answer to my question, I received the exact answer that I needed.

The question was fairly simple, and I had expected a response that was just as simple: “What do you feel is the likelihood for grassroots organizations to succeed in effecting policy change within the modern Israeli political system?”

Easy enough, no? No. This is Israel.

The President of Israel launched into an all out monologue of the need for electoral reform within the Israeli governmental system, including raising the threshold of percentage of votes to 5% (currently at 2%) and the importance of local primaries, rather than primaries at the national levels.

Personally, I agree with the President. Our country is so democratic in its electoral system that it becomes un-democratic once the parties are voted into Knesset at the 2% threshold, and at which point, it is coalition politics which dictate what legislature will or will not be passed and will and will not be upheld or reformed.

In order to ensure survival of the victorious party throughout its term running the government, the party must either have a sweeping majority of Knesset seats, which is not likely, though not an impossibility (1977 Mahapecha) or create a majority through building a coalition with smaller parties. To keep the coalition together, these smaller parties must be appeased. This includes passing laws that serve the few over the majority, and in some cases, in direct opposition to party or politicians own policies.

How does this non-answer fit in with grassroots organizations and their ability to effect legislative change under the current political system? What President Peres said without saying it, is no, an external grassroots lobby is likely unable to effect change from outside of the Israeli Knesset. Following our national vote for which political party we prefer, democracy more or less ends for the average citizen. This is not to say our country is not democratic, and that we have absolutely no say in the matter, but it is not normally up to us, as citizens, to have control over what is placed on the legislative agenda.

Here is the new “classic” example: Last year, 400,000 Israelis marched the streets to protest social change. The tent movement spread like wildfire over that summer, if anything tells our government that change is needed, it is over 5% of the Israeli population taking to the streets in a single night demanding change. Yet, apart from a few slight appeasements to the Israeli population, and thankfully subsidized child care (yes, that was a big deal), what sweeping change came out of it? (There are other reasons why they have not succeeded, but this can be saved for a separate post)

That said, this is not where the story ends. It is close to impossible for a grassroots movement to make change outside of Knesset, but there are rules to the game that allow for some, if not a large allowance of leeway to forward legislative proposals. Grassroots movements need to get into the system, not sit at the window and look inside. It is a fine line, almost impossible to walk, and I am willing to put money that those walking the line will likely be hurt. In politics, sacrificial lambs are needed to ensure the greater good.

Coming from outside of Knesset, one can lobby politicians, and even gain their support for certain items on their agenda. However, though support is nice, without the backing of 1) actual policy recommendations or specific legislative reforms placed on the table for Knesset to vote; and 2) enough MK votes in favor of the legislation/ reform (beyond affirmations of support throughout the lobbying process), little if any change is possible.

This is where a fascinating process begins. The fine line. Grassroots organizations need party support, and therefore while working to be as balanced as possible, must be able to work within various parties in the Knesset and through specific MKs who adopt policy recommendations as their own, and forward them on the Knesset floor.

In essence, in order to beat the system, we must work through the system. In our current governmental system, there is little room for outside grassroots organizations to truly effect change, but this is grassroots, and as such, there is room to grow. We don’t get to play by our rules, but there is a way to play the game, it is possible to work through the system. At times, lobbies and players may be perceived as being partisan, even if they really are not. However, when one takes a closer look, the true art begins to appear, the delicate steps of the grassroots organization, working within the given framework, and effecting that which is otherwise, an impossibility.

This leads to another interesting dilemma, specifically for a lobby like ours, which is looking for the support of the greater Jewish world in our endeavors to close the existential gap between our home and a vast portion of our People. How can we get the greater Jewish world to understand that we are playing by the rules of the Israeli political game, which is vastly different from international perceptions on how to enact change through Israel, for the Jewish People? Is it possible for the global Jewish world to understand the nuances of the currents Israeli political system? Does the international community, at the organized level already understand this? Is there a way to walk this fine line, while at the same time walking the fine line of being n grassroots organization insisting on successfully implementing new policies in the Israeli Knesset?

President Peres was right in his non-answer to my question, it is almost impossible for us to effect change as grassroots organization coming from outside of the framework of the current political system, but when we work from within, miracles can, and do, happen. I am wondering if we can double the miracle by gaining the understanding of our international Jewish community and successfully enact legislation.

About the Author
Safra made aliya in 1997, and has been involved in the Jewish world both professionally and voluntarily throughout her life. She currently resides near Haifa and owns a small translation business. Safra is married and has one son.