Preventing the political system’s stagnation, collapse



Israel’s electoral and governmental system is failing and moving us toward political paralysis. The writing has been on the wall for some time, and soon it may be too late to make the necessary change. During the early years of our state, the system was deemed convenient due to the special circumstances Israel faced, but for too many years now, the system has become less than useful and effective.

In Israel, there is no sufficient separation of powers. Around a third of the Knesset Members serve as ministers or deputy ministers and are thus forbidden to introduce laws or participate in committees. There are few apposite checks and balances, in fact, farcically, the opposite is true; as an MK, I am expected to conduct oversight of my role as Deputy Foreign Minister.

The electoral threshold is among the lowest in the world, which allows parties representing narrow interests to hold the balance of power. According to research, almost three-quarters of all government decisions are not implemented. Our political structure and culture is sorely lacking credibility and accountability.

As a result of this unwieldy system, we have changed government, on average, every two years since the founding of the state. This state of affairs does not allow for an appropriate formulation and implementation of long-term policy.

These are just some of the disadvantages which are dragging Israel’s political system toward stagnation and even collapse. We merely need to examine the challenges and crises we have faced during the past few years to appreciate that the source of the problem and the lack of solutions are connected to our current method of government.

The housing shortage and the high cost of living that brought people to the streets this past summer are a result of the lack of a long-term social-economic policy. There has been no consistent housing policy to answer the needs of a growing population. Short-term interests have outweighed the public’s needs and led to increasing social gaps.

The Carmel Forest disaster became far worse because the funds necessary for the maintenance and improvement of Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services were redirected elsewhere to support narrow interests.

The assault on Israel’s legitimacy is our new battlefield. Opposite the formulated, coherent, repetitive Palestinian narrative, our messages are stunted by constantly changing governments, agendas and even by coalition members from different parties. Often I am asked with confusion by my colleagues in the international community which version is Israel’s official position. In most nations in the world, the Housing Minister would not be able to make public statements about national security issues.

In recent weeks we witnessed a farce in the Israel National Railways. Many citizens were left without any way of getting to work. Railways workers’ committee chairwoman Gila Edri has seen 12 ministers of transportation in her 22 years at the railway. Is it any wonder she thinks she is in control of the railways system? For decades Iran’s nuclear ambitions were well known. Today, as the clock is about to strike midnight, we are desperately seeking a tactical solution for what should have been a carefully thought-out long-term strategy.

For the past 20 years, while Iran has advanced its program to become a very real and present danger, we have had 10 defense ministers. While the Iranians constantly moved toward nuclear weapons, we constantly moved toward elections. The defense of Israel, of the entire Jewish people, must not be treated like a game of musical chairs.

However, the long-term threat to this country is the increasingly intolerable ratio between those who contribute and those who merely benefit.

Under the current failing system of government, in which in order to establish a coalition one must court the small parties, the large parties have conceded the minimal demands of participating in the national effort, to maintain some sort of pseudostability.

During the early years of the state, the vast majority of the population contributed to the country; working, paying taxes, serving in the army and feeling part of wider society. Those who received without giving back were far fewer. However, in the near future, half of the Israeli population will benefit from without contributing to the state. Those who contribute are collapsing under the tax burden, with increasing professional and security demands. These are the characteristics of a society with a tenuous future.

Under the current system, while the political players may change and vary, the rotten structure remains. While from time to time we hear certain voices jump into the fray over government and electoral reform, few hold ambitions other than a nice sound-bite.

Yisrael Beiteinu has promoted political and electoral reform since its inception, and has held this vital banner aloft both as a small party and when it became the third largest one. When the results of the past elections were known, Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Liberman called on Kadima and the Likud to create a government containing the three largest parties, with the sole purpose of electoral reform. Unfortunately, both parties rejected the offer.

There are those who wish the debate will remain academic, or will just disappear. Only those “captains” of democracy whose political future is threatened by change are paralyzed while the “Titanic” of governance is sinking. We need new, fresh thinking to steer Israel back toward stability, governability and a brighter and more equal future.

During my experience as a policy advisor to three prime ministers, I saw the disadvantages of the Israeli government system up close. As a diplomat and deputy foreign minister I have been exposed to various types of government systems.

However, my most significant experience was when I served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington.

During this time I took special note of the system that made the USA the most powerful, successful and flourishing democracy in the world.

The presidential system has a lot of advantages and could serve as a useful model.

As politicians and elected servants of the people we must act responsibly and change the system.

Israel must adopt a system with a proper separation of powers, checks and balances and accountability.

The executive branch should be comprised of people according to their expertise and skill in a field rather than the pressures of coalition-building.

We must raise the electoral threshold to a point where we will stabilize governance without hurting representation.

We need to establish a constitution that will uphold the spirit of our Declaration of Independence and replace the current quasi-constitutional Basic Laws as set by the judiciary. The constitution will define the nature of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state, will state the core values of our state, affirming its responsibilities toward its citizens and the responsibility of its citizens towards the state. The constitution will be written after deliberations and will be a unifying and not a divisive document.

Israel’s many achievements have been gained despite the system and not because of it. Israel is full of wonderful people with moral and creative abilities. Our people deserve a system that will fulfill its interests and will lead our nation to a better, safer and more equal future.

The writer is Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister and an Israel Beiteinu MK. This op-ed is based on a speech he made to the Knesset last week during a conference initiated by Ayalon to highlight the need for political and electoral reform.

February 27, 2012 | 4 Comments »

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  1. One of the simplest bit by bit, slowly slowly catchee monkee, “rien ne dure comme le provisoire” (nothing lasts like the temporary) moves Israel could make would be to introduce the Alternative Vote (marking the ballot with first and second choices) and raise the threshold to get seats to 3% or better the German 5%. This would return from faction chiefs to the voters the mastery of deals to pool or switch votes. It will also oblige oblige voters to think seriously beyond protest voting about the alternative parties they could compromise with for their support and so encourage more amalgamation as happened in the 60’s and 70’s when the assorted Socialist parties dropped their doctrinal in-fights for practicality, and the non-Socialists turned into Likud. Politics above all is about the practical and what do we do now.

    What is vital now is to oblige the religious block to amalgamate and close the Livni split from Likud and Barak split from Labour, which to outsiders are entirely personal. When there are big ideas on the table people co-operate despite personalities and enmity. The current situation with no big doctrinal differences on the table allows personalities to obstruct united efforts. This happened in 18th century Britain and caused the musical chairs politics of the French Third and Fourth Republics. The need for a Confidence vote to also nominate an alternative majority has already calmed down quite a lot of prima donna behaviour.

  2. The arguments against a rigid constitution still seem valid to me. Strengthening Israel’s system of governance is not incompatible with this vision of a flexible constitution.

  3. Some of The arguments against a constitution
    Source: The Knesset.

    The main arguments put forward by those opposed to the constitution, headed by David Ben-Gurion and the religious parties, were: the idea of the constitution developed in previous centuries, against the background of social and economic struggles that no longer exist; despite and perhaps even because of the absence of a written constitution in Great Britain, the rule of law and democracy there are solid, and civil freedoms are upheld; the Proclamation of Independence includes within it the basic principles of any progressive constitution, and the Transition Law of 1949, which was passed by the Constituent Assembly, constitutes a fulfillment of the state’s obligations towards the The United Nations on this issue; only a minority of the Jewish people is in Israel, and the state does not have the right to adopt a constitution that will bind the millions that have not yet arrived; because of the nature and special problems of the state, it is difficult to reach a consensus regarding the spiritual principles which are to shape the image of the people and the essence of its life, and the debate about the constitution could lead to a cultural war between the religious and secular communities; the State of Israel is in the midst of a continuous process of change and crystallization, and this does not go together with a rigid constitution.

    The Declaration of the Establishment
    of the State of Israel

    by Prof. E. Gutmann
    Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

  4. Israel should adopt a French-style hybrid executive. An elected President would be responsible for foreign policy and national defense and a Prime Minister would be responsible for domestic policy and administration of the government. Israel has too many political parties. I propose raising the current electoral threshold from 1% to 6%. This will eliminate the plethora of minor sectoral parties that now exists and give Israel three or four big parties. One party would probably hold a majority or govern in tandem with a second party in a coalition. Also, half the Knesset seats should be filled by representatives elected from specific geographical districts. Germany since World II has had a stable political system that has benefited from a reduced number of parties and it has allowed for effective, long-term policy-making. Israel’s political system is in need of major reform. A country that changes governments every two years has no institutional memory and is ill suited to confronting a rapidly changing political and strategic environment. This consideration also leads to extending Presidential and Knesset terms from four years to five. Six would be even better. Israel can have leaders and legislators in office who will be able to concentrate on national interests than on running for re-election every two years. Political reform would invigorate Israel’s economy and stabilize its political system. They are worthy goals of a great country.