October 23, 2013
Boredom in an interesting country

If you are not yawning now, you will if you reach the end of this note.

The topic is the local authorities of Israel, and the recent election, which in almost all of the cases said to be controversial by excited media personalities turnout was low and incumbents returned to office.

There are 256 localities in this tiny country, including those with the status of municipalities and smaller places with local councils.

The US provides more authority and responsibilities to its local governments than many other democracies. American localities generally have their own school systems with considerable discretion over what is taught. Local police may have to concern themselves with boundaries when chasing someone. Physical planning and property tax levels also depend on local discretion. The US has followed other countries in taking some of the more sensitive issues out of local hands, most prominently via issues of racial integration and voting rights, and tempting localities to accept national standards as the price of getting federal money.

Israel, like most European countries, handles the important stuff via national government ministries, including the content of schooling, as well as policing and the level of local taxes.

Overall about 50 percent of those eligible voted in this week's local elections. Only 31 percent voted in Tel Aviv and returned the incumbent, despite its reputation of being the country's most lively city, with an opposition candidate who seemed to fit the city's image.

More exciting was the concert given by Rihanna at a Tel Aviv park in the evening before the polls closed. 52,000 people attended, paying the equivalent of $115 for the cheapest tickets that let them stand far from the stage.

Turnout figures do not mean much for Jerusalem, given that the sizable Arab population exercises its nationalism by not voting. Nonetheless, reports are that this year's turnout was five percent less than in the last municipal election, despite a race described by the media as "down to the wire."

Local government is not boring for contractors and property developers, and those with political connections wanting jobs. Neither is it boring for the national police, prosecutors, and courts that deal with the underside of Israeli government.

Currently there are high profile trials concerned with corruption and property development in Jerusalem. Two former mayors stand accused, one of whom moved up to become Israel's Finance Minister and then Prime Minister before he resigned when the indictments came down.

Three smaller cities have gotten attention due to Supreme Court decisions requiring the suspension of their mayors because of indictments for one or another kind of corruption. A gap in the law allowed the individuals charged to run, and all won their elections. This is paving the way for more appearances before the Supreme Court. The politicians are already arguing that voters should be more powerful than the courts in a democracy.

Arab local authorities present their own story. Most of them are in the Galilee, and outside the pattern described for Jerusalem. Their residents have been Israeli citizens since the creation of the state, although regulated by military restrictions until the mid-1960s. Over the years they have had rates of voting in local and national elections close to those of Israel's Jews. However, the Arab localities remain outside of the main stream, and are the topic of competing assessments about who is exploiting who.

The history of Arab localities is one of heavy involvement by extended families, with blood more important than any platform in determining how one votes. Favoritism and family ties also affect who gets jobs and how much the local administration demands by way of tax collection. Sixteen out of the 84 Arab local authorities have been taken over by the Interior Ministry due to mismanagement, while only 6 out of 172 Jewish local authorities are currently operated by the Interior Ministry. Critics make a credible argument that national officials pay little attention to Arab localities, and fail to provide them with the level of financial aids and incidence of development projects that flow to Jewish localities. What tends to be missing from those arguments is a prominent reason for the disadvantages of Arab localities, i.e., the lack of rapport in national politics between Jews with power and Arab MKs who are more inclined to demonize than cooperate in the conventional politics of give and take.

Several of the Arab towns have succumbed to the temptations associated with drugs and competition--often bloody--between criminal organizations. Yet organized crime is by no means an Arab monopoly. Drive-by shootings, often dismissed by the police as "criminal rather than nationalistic" occur in predominantly Jewish cities. Perhaps most like Mexico is the mixed Jewish-Arab municipality of Lod, a long stone throw from the international airport, where the prominent undercurrent is warfare between Jewish and Arab criminal organizations. This was the first local election in Lod for 10 years, due to the Interior Ministry having taken over the municipality. A day before the election there was a shooting of an Arab party candidate for the city council.

Most prominent in the Arab sector was the mayoralty campaign in Nazareth by MK Haneen Zoabi. Her lack of success may be due to the limited local appeal of her feisty anti-establishment campaigns in national and international forums, the problems of a woman in Arab politics, and/or the patronage advantages of a long time incumbent.

Jerusalem's local election commanded most of the headlines. Prominent were undercurrents associated with ultra-Orthodox communities, Jewish ethnicity, and the efforts of two national politicians to influence the outcome. While ultrra-Orthodox abbis have the potential to dictate how more than 30 percent of the city's Jews will vote, they have not been united since the retirement of ultra-Orthodox Mayor Uri Lupolianski, currently on trial along with his predecessor Ehud Olmert. Two national figures--MK, former Interior Minister and former convict Ariyeh Deri and MK and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, long the subject of police investigation and currently awaiting a judicial verdict--promoted a candidate thought to appeal to the city's clusters of ultra-Orthodox, Jewish nationalists, and Sephardi Jews. However, the incumbent mayor, a former high-tech entrepreneur, managed to paint his opponent as an outsider (a resident of suburban Tel Aviv) not well informed about the city, and the tool of a political combine more concerned with access to patronage than the well being of the city. The counter argument, that the incumbent had bought quiet from the ultra-Orthodox by dealing with them under the table, did not overcome the challenger's problems.

Go ahead and yawn. Most voters in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other places did not follow the signs to the neighborhood polls. Those who did returned almost all of the incumbents to office.

--
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725
Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144
irashark@gmail.com

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at October 23, 2013 04:38 AM