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  • Fostering Israel's "Age of Reform"
  • Arye Carmon (bio)

The Israel Democracy Institute opened its doors in Jerusalem in October 1991, capping ten years of exhaustive planning and study. The launching of IDI coincided with the stunning advent of an "age of reform" in Israel that had seemed a distant vision only a few years previously.

We established IDI as a policy center on the seam of Israel's political and intellectual life, dedicated to strengthening the institutions and values of a democracy still in formation. The institute's location between these two worlds has required constant reflection on how best to bring the insights of the academy to bear on the pragmatic dynamics and concrete problems of politics. The founding of the modern State of Israel less than two generations ago marked a revolutionary moment in the history of the Jewish people, who for over 60 generations had known nothing of political sovereignty or its manifold burdens. Hence it is scarcely surprising that as the twentieth century draws to a close, Israel is still far from a fully mature democracy.

One of the key problems facing Israel as a democracy flows directly from the struggle for survival that has been forced upon it since its [End Page 114] founding in 1948. This exhausting effort has exacted a heavy toll, diverting energies that should have been channeled into the construction of a well-functioning democracy. This diversion has been fraught with implications for the character of Israeli political culture in general and the functioning of its institutions in particular.

Two such implications loom especially large. First, political decision makers have become enmeshed in a culture of crisis that places a premium on the ability to improvise and act quickly in the present rather than to make long-term plans. As a result, decision makers—particularly the elected representatives in the Knesset, Israel's 120-member, unicameral legislature—have little inclination to reflection on the experience of other countries and scant desire to seek out serious policy analysis and recommendations. Knesset members roam the corridors without any tradition of accumulated parliamentary experience or firm political ground rules to guide them. Unlike most of its counterparts in developed democracies, the Knesset lacks many badly needed support mechanisms, and its members are unexposed to any fund of institutional memory like the ones that other parliaments build up and share with their members.

Second, the founders of the State of Israel, particularly Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, were guided by the imperative of "normalizing" statehood as quickly as possible. For them, normalization meant suppressing variegated ideological, ethnic, religious, and cultural perspectives in favor of a centralized "state" perspective incarnated by an overweening bureaucracy of the sort many founders knew from their East European upbringing. The upshot was the ever-growing bureaucratic machine that still predominates at the expense of more decentralized and democratic ways of doing things. In the Israel of the early 1990s, a nucleus of senior civil servants has accumulated more power than elected officials, be they legislators or cabinet ministers.

In the face of these grave challenges, I began to develop the vision of strengthening democratic institutions and values in Israel by linking the expertise of academics to the savvy of political practitioners in the context of a forward-looking policy-research institute.

From 1986 to 1988, I traveled to academic centers in the United States, England, France, and Australia, seeking advice about this vision and the best means of implementing it. These efforts culminated in a conference held in Israel in March 1988 with the participation of some 70 academics from seven foreign countries, as well as 40 from various universities in Israel itself.

The conference was intended mainly to help delineate the structure of our policy-oriented center, but it also gave rise to the idea that what Israel needed was an "age of reform"—a period of comprehensive institutional change and renewal. Our deliberations convinced us that many of the immediate strains on Israeli democracy sprang from causes [End Page 115] which could only be addressed through a long-range approach involving years of research and extensive public education.

Breaking the Pattern of Stagnation

In November 1988, shortly...


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