Middle East

As the Knesset reconvenes, Israel’s newly elected municipal leaders can help foster change in national politics


Following a year of pro-democracy protests and as the war with Hamas and Hezbollah enters its eighth month, the domestic scene in Israel looks poised for a political transition. On May 19, the Knesset returns from recess for what will likely be a decisive summer session, and which may pave the way for early elections.

In recent years, mayors and cities around the world have demonstrated how municipal leaders can contribute to political change at the national level. The municipal landscape in Israel that took shape following the February 2024 local elections can similarly become a meaningful asset for Israelis yearning for new leadership. Indeed, pro-democracy mayors and city (local and regional) councils across the country have grown increasingly influential when it comes to safeguarding and advancing liberal values. They are now better positioned and more motivated to make an impact on Israeli national politics.

At the national level, democratic backsliding picked up speed

Democratic backsliding picked up speed in Israel over the past decade. Traditionally, Israeli democracy has faced challenges related to security threats, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israel’s definition as a Jewish state. But, since the mid-2010s, under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, additional factors came into play. These included worsening corruption, with cases involving the head of government himself; the de-legitimization of political opponents, at home and abroad; attempts to reduce the space for civil society; efforts to centralize power and weaken checks and balances; and growing populism and anti-democratic legislation.

The coming to power of Netanyahu’s current far-right coalition in late 2022 and the subsequent announcement by Justice Minister Yariv Levin of a planned judicial overhaul were watershed moments. They threatened basic democratic pillars and values shared by most Israelis, led to comparisons to authoritarian trends seen in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, and sparked an unprecedented pro-democracy protest movement that pushed back against the government. While the Hamas terrorist attack of Oct. 7 significantly shifted Israelis’ focus away from domestic politics, the war in Gaza and its consequences also highlighted the high price the country was paying for its democratic deficit as well as underscored the pressing need for leadership change and a new course of action.

Liberal mayors increasingly stood up to the government

Israeli mayors have traditionally tried to stay on good terms with national-level governing coalitions, in no small part to ensure that their budgetary requests are met and prioritized. When they sought to press the government to advance certain overarching municipal interests, they often did so collectively, via the Federation of Local Authorities or a joint forum of the 15 major cities. But the city of Tel Aviv eventually stood out and branded itself as the stronghold of Israeli liberalism, pluralism, and freedom. A key driver behind this posturing was the goal of safeguarding secularism, with additional Israeli mayors joining the effort over the years, most notably by launching initiatives for Shabbat bus services.

When Netanyahu’s far-right government was established, mayors became the first to act against the anti-democratic measures proposed by the new coalition members in the cabinet and legislature. First, as gatekeepers, elected municipal heads ensured the preservation of the liberal education system at the local level. Later, as pro-democracy protests throughout Israel intensified, liberal mayors became key actors in the movement. They supported, attended, and spoke up at local demonstrations; they organized a mayors’ protest in front of the Knesset; and they stepped up their backing and support for public events championing LGBTQ+ rights. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai naturally stood at the forefront of such efforts, with his city becoming the center of the protest movement. He was quickly joined by a fresh cadre of mayors committed to liberal values who made the pro-democracy struggle a key pillar of their agendas and public personas. Pro-democracy Israeli mayors grew progressively more comfortable with adopting a confrontational approach toward Netanyahu’s government and the democratic backsliding it advanced.

Recent municipal elections led to some pro-democracy successes

Israel held municipal elections in February 2024, after they were postponed from October 2023 due to the war. Though their outcome was not particularly dramatic or game-changing, they did result in some significant achievements for the pro-democracy camp, which may have an impact on the next general elections that seem to be drawing near.

The lead up to the mayoral and city council races last winter highlighted the importance Israeli liberals attributed to municipalities. Given far-right governmental agendas, liberals increasingly viewed themselves as a distinct sector within Israeli society that needs to fight for its rights and interests. Liberals understood the need to seek positions of power at the local level to counter their political marginalization and to build up the electoral infrastructure that would also be beneficial at the national level. In key cities, candidates were thus often evaluated by voters based on their commitment to liberal values, which became an integral part of campaign messaging.

A significant number of new liberal activists entered the political scene, including young and women candidates, motivated by the new grassroots leadership that emerged out of the months of massive pro-democracy protests. These newcomers either joined existing electoral lists (whether local or linked to national parties) or established new ones that captured the pro-democracy spirit and translated it into political power in multiple municipalities. At the same time, the negative experience of splits diluting the Israeli left in previous general elections motivated several lists to unite and run together. Mergers were generally based on ideological coherence; but even where they did not take place, liberal lists that ran separately tried to keep their messaging toward each other positive, emphasizing their shared purpose.

The war in Gaza and its dominance over the Israeli mindset ultimately contributed to a rather low turnout on election day, generating disappointment for some liberal lists. In some cities, including Jerusalem, the low turnout ended up empowering others, such as the ultra-Orthodox community. On the other hand, the ballot results further reinforced liberal strongholds in multiple major Israeli cities (such as Tel Aviv, Herzliya, and Hod HaSharon), creating distinct power centers that may help the Israeli left do better in the next general elections.

Municipalities as stepping stones toward national change

For countries like Israel that face democratic backsliding, having major urban areas led by liberal mayors and city councils is a true asset. In the short term, this can limit the spread and impact of problematic central governmental policies, with municipal leaders creating safeguards and acting as gatekeepers. In the longer term, it can create conditions that will help foster change at the national level.

Liberal municipalities can put pro-democracy policies into practice and showcase to the broader public their success and the benefits they bring. This can be evident in fields such as education, transportation, good governance, personal freedom, pluralism, and equality. At the local level, the public will be exposed on a daily basis to a practical alternative to the manner in which national politics are run. This can help legitimize opposition agendas and brand them as feasible alternatives.

Local politics in Israel can also help cultivate a new cadre of leaders, who will eventually make a leap into national politics. After successfully serving as mayors or on city councils, they will step onto the national scene with a proven track record in governance, greater political skills, and increased name recognition. Liberal governance at the municipal level can additionally enhance the political infrastructure that pro-democracy parties will have at their disposal in the next general elections. It can assist in campaigning, voter mobilization, and get-out-the-vote efforts. As chances for early elections in Israel are on the rise, these opportunities may be put to the test in the coming months.

 

Dr. Nimrod Goren is the Senior Fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, President of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and Co-Founder of Diplomeds – The Council for Mediterranean Diplomacy.

Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images


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