More on constitutional reform in Israel

The Norwegian Scam*

Prof. Paul Eidelberg

The Norwegian scam is another name for the Norwegian Law now sponsored by Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Applied to Israel, the Norwegian Law would require Knesset members who become cabinet ministers to resign their seats, which will be filled by others members on their respective party’s electoral list. The Knesset would thus retain 120 members to focus on legislation and would have no ministerial responsibilities.

However, since the MKs who become cabinet ministers remain the leaders of their respective parties, Israel will remain plagued by multi-party cabinet government, only now the public will have to pay the salaries and perks for at least 24 more MKs—and that’s a lot of money.

As I have often pointed out, the system of multi-party cabinet government is intrinsically divisive, inept, and conducive to corruption. Such a government, with the leaders of rival parties in the cabinet, is inherently incapable of pursuing a coherent and resolute national strategy. These party leaders will maneuver to advance their own personal ambitions and party interests in anticipation of the next election.

Therefore, Israel desperately needs a Unitary Executive—a President whose cabinet consists of persons who share his own political principles, priorities, and program. Diverse parties belong in the legislature, not the executive. Let’s examine what Alexander Hamilton says of a Unitary versus a Plural Executive.

In Federalist 70, he writes: “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.” “That unity is conducive to energy will not be disputed. Decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch will generally characterize the proceedings of one man [far more so] than the proceedings of any greater number; and in proportion as the number is increased, these qualities will be diminished.”

This unity, he goes on to say, “can be destroyed in two ways: either by vesting the power in two or more ministers of equal dignity and authority; or by vesting it ostensibly in one man, subject, in whole or in part, to the control and cooperation of others, in the capacity of counselors …”

Admired by Talleyrand as the greatest statesman of the age, Hamilton probes the defects of a Plural Executive. Because a Plural Executive inevitably gives rise to differences of opinion, there inevitably follows the danger of “personal animosity” among those composing the government. Such dissensions lessen the respectability, weaken the authority, and distract the plans and operations of those whom they divide…. [T]hey impede or frustrate the most important measures of the government, in the most critical emergencies of the state. And what is still worse, they might split the community into the most violent and irreconcilable factions, adhering to the different individuals who composed the [government].

Hamilton also considers the psychological consequences of a Plural Executive, or rather, how such an Executive can arouse the vices of human nature. I paraphrase:

Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no [role] in planning it, or because it may have been proposed by those whom they dislike. [A common experience in Israel’s cacophonous cabinet.] But if they have been consulted, and have happened to disapprove [a proposed bill], opposition then becomes, in their estimation, an indispensable duty of self-love. They seem to think themselves bound in honor, and by all the motives of personal infallibility, to defeat the success of what has been [decided] upon contrary to their sentiments. Men of upright, benevolent tempers have too many opportunities of remarking, with horror, to what desperate lengths this disposition is sometimes carried, and how often the great interests of society are sacrificed to the vanity, to the conceit, and to the obstinacy of individuals, who have enough [prestige] to make their passions and caprices interesting to mankind.

Hamilton’s perceptive remarks describe the behavior of Israeli cabinets, whose ministers, as party leaders, feel obliged to exert their egos or independence lest they lose credit among their party followers.

But one of the weightiest objections to a plurality in the Executive, says Hamilton, is that it tends to conceal faults and destroy responsibility. It often becomes impossible, amidst mutual accusations, to determine on whom the blame or the punishment of a pernicious measure ought really to fall. It is shifted from one magistrate to another with so much dexterity that the public is left in suspense about the real author. The circumstances which may have led to any national misfortune are sometimes so complicated where several ministers are involved, and who may have had different degrees and kinds of responsibility; so that even though we may clearly see there has been mismanagement, yet it may be impracticable to determine on whose account the evil is truly chargeable.

How well this applies to the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War and the question of which members of Mr. Olmert’s multi-party cabinet were responsible for the disastrous outcome of that war. You can be fairly certain that the Winograd Commission, assigned to investigate the causes of that debacle, will not fault Israel’s inept system of multi-party cabinet government, and thereby recommend that it be replaced by a unitary executive—a president whose cabinet consists of the president’s personally selected ministers.

By the way, this is exactly the modes of appointment adopted by George Washington. Washington successfully resisted efforts to make members of the legislature, i.e., Senate, his executive council; and he also rejected the British ministerial model. He reviewed candidates for the executive branch of the government according to the criterion to which he had long adhered: reputation for good character.

Washington would have rejected the Norwegian law and its advocates with contempt.

Today Avigdor Lieberman supports the Norwegian law. Last year he proposed a presidential system. Lieberman seems to lack a serious and consistent political philosophy—meaning, he lacks the expert knowledge of what kind of political system is good for this country.

But let’s consider the presidential system he proposed last year. He tries to pass it off as patterned after that of the United States. Sheer nonsense. First of all, his president would have the power to appoint cabinet ministers without legislative approval—and this is a formula for dictatorship.

Second, Lieberman would preserve the existing parliamentary electoral system which compels citizens to vote for party slates. MKs would not be individually elected by and accountable to the voters in constituency elections. There would be no effective checks on the president on the one hand, and the people of Israel will remain disenfranchised on the other—as they have been for almost 60 years without any outrage expressed by political scientists. Hmmmm.

Returning to the Norwegian Law, it is actually an engine of corruption. Why? Because people ambitious to become members of the Knesset will still see the Knesset as merely an opportunity to become cabinet ministers, the road to political power and political longevity.

The trouble with those involved in redesigning Israel’s institutions is that they are either part of the Establishment and will propose nothing that shifts power from the Establishment to the people. Or else they are ignoramuses, even though some may have degrees in political science or in law. They simply lack the extraordinary wisdom and virtues of America’s founding fathers.

One reason for their lack of wisdom is that Israeli universities do not devote much time to the serious study of the classics of political science, such as Aristotle. Nor do political science departments devote serious time to the study of statesmanship. such as will be found in The Federalist Papers. To design a system of government one must not only know the character of your people and your country’s vulnerabilities, but also the character of your country’s enemies.

Judging from the records, it seems that the secular founders of the State of Israel were primarily concerned with consolidating their own power. But only unwise men would establish an executive branch consisting of rival political parties when Israel is surrounded by hostile Arab regimes. This folly has plagued Israel for almost 60 years, and there is no end in sight.

*Edited transcript of the Eidelberg Report, Israel National Radio, September 3, 2007.

September 3, 2007 | Comments Off on More on constitutional reform in Israel

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