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The Arnona Fund: A calculated assault on Israeli democracy

This anti-democratic strategy ripped straight from Orban's playbook will undermine local autonomy and consolidate control
Protesters hold a demonstration at the Modiin town hall portraying government thieves stealing money and city services from the municipality, on May 14, 2023. (Credit: Raoul Wootliff)
Protesters hold a demonstration at the Modiin town hall portraying government thieves stealing money and city services from the municipality, on May 14, 2023. (Credit: Raoul Wootliff)

Israel finds itself at a pivotal juncture in its history, grappling with a government determined to undermine the authority of the Supreme Court, while a sweeping tide of pro-democracy protests engulfs the nation. In the face of this existential struggle for the future of Israeli democracy, it might be tempting to dismiss the coalition’s proposed Arnona Fund plan as relatively inconsequential.

The proposal seeks to collect property taxes from local businesses and allocate them to financially struggling municipalities. While appearing to prioritize wealth equity, however, it disproportionately impacts cities with thriving business sectors and industrial parks, penalizing communities that have diligently worked to attract employers and diverting much-needed funds from improving essential services. Rather than benefitting the intended municipalities, the plan is likely to serve sector-specific demands. Furthermore, the structure of the fund hampers its effectiveness for Arab municipalities, while West Bank settlements are conveniently exempt from contributing.

But beneath the seemingly innocuous (if flawed) veil of financial redistribution lies a disturbing truth: the Arnona Fund plan represents a brazen power grab by the ruling coalition. By diverting municipal tax revenues to a centralized resource, it consolidates control in the hands of a distant authority. This move undermines the investments made by communities to bolster their local economies and enhance citizen services, effectively eroding the autonomy of local governments. It places citizens at the mercy of faceless bureaucrats, directly challenging the very essence of democracy and diminishing local empowerment and citizen representation.

It is therefore no surprise that the Arnona Fund eerily echoes the exact tactics employed by Hungary’s Viktor Orban regime, which systematically dismantled liberal municipalities, centralizing power in the hands of loyal authorities, with dire consequences. Media freedom was stifled, civil society was suppressed, and dissenting voices were silenced. Hungary’s experience under Orban serves as a chilling reminder of the treacherous path Israel currently treads. The Arnona Fund plan is not a mere financial skirmish; it is a battle to preserve the principles that define us: local autonomy, citizen representation, and the very essence of democracy itself. It is not a coincidence; it is a calculated strategy ripped straight from Orban’s playbook, aiming to undermine local autonomy and consolidate control.

This battle is not an isolated incident but intricately intertwined with the preservation of a robust and independent judiciary. The Arnona Fund plan, coupled with the assault on the judiciary, constitutes a dual-pronged attack on our democratic institutions. By consolidating control over local municipalities and curtailing the authority of the Supreme Court, the ruling coalition seeks to concentrate power in the hands of a select few, diminishing the influence and input of the citizens they are meant to represent.

To safeguard the vitality and autonomy of local municipalities, we must empower them even further. They are the lifeblood of citizen representation and accountability, and sacrificing them for the sake of centralized control is simply not an option. Instead of punishing communities that have made significant investments to attract employers and improve services, we should champion their efforts and strengthen their authority. Local governments possess the best understanding of and ability to address the unique needs of their constituents. By bolstering their authority, we breathe life into the principles of democracy, fostering a nation where the voices of the people resonate powerfully.

Preserving our democracy necessitates a collective commitment to upholding the values and institutions that have guided us thus far. We must learn from history and vehemently reject the tactics that have eroded democracy elsewhere. The battle for local autonomy is nothing less than a battle for the soul of our nation, and we must fight it with unwavering determination and resolve. By steadfastly defending the principles of democracy, we forge a path toward a brighter future—one where local empowerment, citizen representation, and the rule of law flourish.

About the Author
Raoul Wootliff is Head of Strategic Communications at Number 10 Strategies, an international strategic, research and communications consultancy. He was formerly the Times of Israel's political correspondent and producer of the TOI Daily Briefing podcast.
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