Israel experiencing revival of democratic life thanks to Winograd

Something good is happening to Israeli democracy these days. Precisely when several indicators seem to show that Israelis are becoming weary of their democratic system; when the
Index of Israeli Democracy, published by professor Asher Arian and his team from the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), reveals that many citizens prefer a “strongman” over “all those deliberations in the Knesset”; when there are complaints that the Supreme Court, with its “judicial imperialism,” has taken over the political arena; in light of all this — and despite all this — we are experiencing today a surge of rejuvenation in our democratic life.

The trigger, of course, was the interim Winograd Report, which severely criticized the decision-making of the Israeli leaders, both political and military, during the second Lebanon War. The report set in motion a formidable democratic machine, and some 100,000 Israelis came to Rabin Square last Thursday to call for the resignation of two government leaders — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

If you think about it in American terms, it’s like having 6 million people marching on Washington, D.C., to rally for a certain cause (in the largest rally against the Vietnam War in 1969, 250,000 people showed up).

Apart from this impressive show of citizen involvement, the Winograd Report brought back to the Israeli political sphere the essence of democracy, originating in ancient Greece: free citizens engaging in a serious discourse on their most crucial public affairs.

For years, this discourse in Israel has been contaminated by partisan politics, consumer craze and attack journalism — not uncommon in other societies, except that Israel is maybe the only country in the world whose existence is threatened, and therefore, it cannot afford to just lie back like others. The decline in voter turnout from 68 percent in 2003 to 63 percent in 2006 and the decline in the public’s trust in state institutions — both indicated by IDI’s Democracy Index — signaled the weakening process of democracy in Israel.

But the Winograd Report sounded the alarm. With a clear voice, this commission of one woman and four men told us exactly what went wrong last summer and who is responsible for it.

The commission not only criticized the military flaws and the poor decision making exposed in the war but also put on the table for discussion the key fundamental issues: Who should qualify to be a prime minister or defense minister in Israel? Should leadership that failed step down or rather be given a chance to fix what had gone wrong? What is the true meaning of responsibility in the public arena? What is the unwritten contract between the electorate and the elected? How should we balance between accountability (resigning of failed leaders) and stability?

All these issues and more are now at the center of a lively debate in Israel. Whether eventually Olmert resigns or not is beside the point. The public has already taken its cue from the Winograd Commission. It has called its leaders to order by rallying in big numbers and by expressing its opinions in the polls. Now the struggle switches to the Knesset, where the representatives of the people will have to decide how they respond to the wishes of the electorate.

There have been voices criticizing the whole idea of a commission of inquiry taking over the roles of the regular organs of government. Furthermore, the critics say that the commission, headed by a former district judge, is another example, or an extension, of the judicial imperialism, in which the courts decide about public affairs, instead of the representatives of the people.

Yet the Winograd Commission has done nothing of the sort. After laying the facts on the table — and few question the seriousness and professionalism of the inquiry — the commission members stopped short of making any personal recommendations. That’s the role of the public, they reasoned.

Indeed, the public stood up to the occasion and now is vigorously debating the Winograd findings, pondering what’s best for Israel: letting Olmert carry on and implementing the report, re-shuffling the government or new elections.

This is a major event, where Israeli citizens are once again debating real issues, not products of spin meisters, and there is a fresh feeling of the people being able to freely decide about its crucial matters.

Democracy in Israel is being invigorated.

Uri Dromi is director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.