Think tanks and the political and cultural system: the Israeli case

24 May 2012

On my last post I discussed approaches to research impact, how academics can amplify the effects of their work on public policy. But what happens when it is the political and cultural structure of a country that hinders the possibility for think tanks to effectively insert their work and influence the decision making process? According to Hannah Elka Meyers for the Middle East Quarterlythis is Israel´s case. She has interviewed directors and fellows of several prominent Israeli think tanks such as the Van Leer Institute and the Shalem Center, and come to the conclusion that even though Israel has the highest number of think tanks in the Middle East, its political and cultural structure discourages politicians and policy makers from consulting with independent institutions, and provides little space for external research.

Even such heavyweights as the Shalem Center, International Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya, and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs have had little impact on Israeli policymaking. Many research centers’ own heads admit their lack of political influence. Eyal Zisser, director and senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University´s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, for example, acknowledges a lack of ‘real influence’.

A parliamentary system coupled with a proportional electoral system offers little chance for outside policy work to insert itself into public policy debate. Since the executive and the legislative are fused in the parliamentary model, as is also the case in countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom, there are fewer points of access to approach policy makers. Political parties in this model are also more disciplined and close-knit, and party members are reluctant to take independent positions that go against the party’s stance. The proportional electoral system also hinders think tank participation since political parties focused on specific topics tend to be stronger and can dominate the agenda.

Funding can also prove to be an obstacle for Israeli think tanks. The government does not hire these institutions to carry out research on its behalf nor does it provide incentives by giving tax breaks to nonprofit organisations. Since there are few private sources, this causes think tanks to rely on universities for funding, which in turn leads to research becoming more oriented towards academia than public policy. In addition, the few private sources that do exist are short term, which does not allow think tanks to delve deeper in their research.

There is also a culture of informality in Israel that results in government officials seeking out individuals and not institutions when looking for outside information. Being a small country, most people in the political circuit tend to know each other and create personal ties. This happens during the mandatory military service as well.

This article proves to be very interesting because while usually the focus is on how think tanks can act in order to be more influential in public policy making,  it is important to also consider that there are political and social structures, particularly in developing countries, that give shape to the channels of communication between think tanks and politicians and public officials and make the relationship between them more challenging. More has been written on this topic: regarding the relationship between think tanks and political parties in Latin America, for example, is a publication by International IDEA called Thinking Politics: Think Tanks and Political Parties in Latin America (in Spanish). Enrique Mendizabal and Norma Correa also have a book on think tanks, politics and the media called Vínculos entre conocimiento y política: el rol de la investigación en el debate público en América Latina.