Preventing the political system’s stagnation, collapse
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE OF ALL. YET IT IS ALSO THE HARDEST TO ACHIEVE. tHE BIGGEST PROBLEM IS FINDING COMMON GROUND ON WHETHER WE WILL HAVE A ZIONISTIC CONSTITUTION OR A UNIVERSALIST CONSTITUTION. AS FOR THE STRUCTURE, WE CAN DO NO BETTER THAT FOLLOWING THE MODEL OF THE US CONSTITUTION JUST AS IT TOOK ITS INSPIRATION FROM THE TORAH. TED BELMAN
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.