Burning Issues brings our best opinion writers to one podium, where they respond, in brief and in real time, to a question about one of the hottest news topics on the agenda. Our aim is also to get you, our readers, involved, by sharing your opinions with the JPost community, or if you wish, by responding to any specific posting. A link to the writer's most recent column appears at the end of each posting. #4: Should Israel support Abbas against Hamas? #3: Should Israel initiate talks with Syria? #2: Who is ahead, Bush or Ahmadinejad? #1: Should the Pope have apologized?

Question #5

In a meeting held Friday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman agreed to push for electoral change in the winter Knesset session as well as the creation of a constitution. In light of the unstable Israeli system of government (last gov't to serve four years was Menachem Begin's one between 1977-81), do you think concepts such as direct elections, which did not produce the desired results last time around, and a constitution would work for a country such as Israel? Comments by Shlomo Avineri, Calev Ben-David, Gerald Steinberg Michael Freund, Daniel Pipes and Isi Leibler Shlomo Avineri: This is another doomed attempt to reach through social engineering results which the political system is unable to deliver. A similar attempt was made with the direct election of the Prime Minister, and the results were the exact opposite of what the initiators were hoping for: rather than strengthening the office of the Prime Minister, it caused the further weakening of the two major parties, further empowered smaller parties and made the Prime Minister even more dependent on them than before. As previously, this initiative is concocted by people with a lawyerly mind, who think that you can change the social structure of the country - pluralistic, deeply divided - by constitutional tricks. They overlook the fact that even if a presidential system were inaugurated, the directly elected executive President would still depend on the Knesset for legislation and his government's; he will obviously be forced - as is the much vaunted model ,the US President - into the usual give and take which is the essence of democracy. Or ,perhaps, when confronted with a recalcitrant Knesset, the President would then follow in Putin's steps and emasculate what would be left of representative government? It is not an accident that practically all functioning democracies are parliamentary, not presidential: the US, given its federal structure and vastness, is obviously different. Presidential systems, when adopted in Latin American, for example, produce authoritarian leaders - as has been the case in Russia. There are no wonder drugs in democracy, and anyone claming to produce one is - simply and bluntly - a quack doctor. Lebanon's problem is not just Shaba Farms Isi Leibler: The current Israeli electoral system is appalling. But in isolation, constitutions do not necessarily contribute to the democratic ethos of a nation. In fact Stalin's constitution was always cited by pro Soviet apologists as the most ideal model for a democratic charter despite the fact that the Soviet Union was the 20th century's showcase for the worst totalitarianism of its time. However, reform of the electoral system is truly critical. Yet whereas the introduction of a Presidential system with a higher threshold would be useful in eliminating splinter parties, it would still not enable the electorate to reward or punish individual representatives at the polls. What is required is a system in which individual MKs are directly accountable to the voters in electorates. Only then will we be able to ensure a high caliber of Knesset representation and eliminate corrupt elements including those who primarily seek to promote their own personal interests, rather than those of the nation. For a year of people power Gerald Steinberg: This may be an example of the Hebrew proverb regarding actions that are undertaken for ulterior motives but eventually serve a higher purpose. The Olmert government and the members of the coalition are in trouble, and Israel is clearly in the midst of an extended leadership crisis, exacerbated by an antiquated political system based on mid 19th eastern European models. The party-based system produces weak coalition governments, encourages corruption, and repels capable and dedicated candidates unwilling or unable to play the political game. But simply adopting an American-type system with a directly elected president is not the solution, and we found a few years ago. As long as party machines and special interests control the selection of candidates for the Knesset, and our elected representatives are not directly accountable to constituencies, the Israeli crisis of governance will continue. At the same time, changes in the political structure, including debate on an Israeli constitution, must take the complexity of the society into account - religious and secular; veterans and new immigrants; the Jewish majority and Arab minorities. Efforts to eliminate small parties and consolidate the bigger ones, or to ram through a constitution supported by a narrow majority would disrupt the social fabric. For 58 years, since independence, disagreements over the definition of Israel as a Jewish state have blocked the adoption of a constitution, and the current group of leaders do not inspire the confidence necessary for resolving these disputes. But there may never be a good time for these debates, and perhaps this process will bring forward a new generation of dedicated and qualified leaders for the future of Israel and the Jewish people. Demise of the non-proliferation treaty? Jonathan Tobin: These are things that Israelis - and not Diaspora Jews - must decide. However, Israel's need for a constitution is obvious to any political science student. A bill of rights that would protect free speech, a more representative and accountable legislature, an independent judiciary that does not control its own succession, and an executive that is also more accountable are all desperately needed. The problem with the idea of Prime Minister Olmert and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman being the ones proposing a new model is that whatever they come up with will be bound to serve their short term political interests. That is because their interests are not necessarily identical with the long term political health of Israeli democracy. The failure of past proposals, such as the hybrid system for direct election of the prime minister tried in the 1990s, is due to just such a dichotomy. The leading contenders for the prime ministership embraced that plan because all thought it would advance their own interests. What ensued - election wins for a couple of ambitious leaders while also bringing even more chaos and fragmentation - were the result of this focus on narrow partisan advantage. Israelis should scrutinize the Olmert-Lieberman initiative from just this frame of reference. Daniel Pipes: Israel has the world's worst democracy. That is to say, of all countries with a fully democratic system, Israel boasts the most dysfunctional process. The reasons go back to eastern Europe and Russia at the origins of the Zionist movement. When, one wonders, will Israelis take matters into hand and make the requisite and ever-more-urgent changes? For starters, a constitution would replace the malleable hodgepodge of Ottoman, British, and Israeli laws. For another, a population of seven million sorely needs to be divided into constituencies; keeping the whole country as a single electoral district implies an unjust distribution of services and access. Israel's political instability, however, reflects more profound problems than what even improvements to the system can address. For some twenty years, the electorate has been massively indecisive about the key of how to deal with hostile neighbors. Until a consensus re-emerges such as existed in the country's first nearly thirty years, the current volatility will likely continue. Israel in NATO? Calev Ben-David: Israel is in serious need of electoral reforms not because of Avigdor Lieberman's demands, or because it is politically convenient for Ehud Olmert, but because the present system is simply too unstable for a nation facing the kind of challenges that this one must contend with. To succeed though, these reforms must be carried out comprehensively and be designed especially to address the failings of the present system, unlike the earlier failed attempt for direct election of the prime minister without any comparable changes for Knesset representation. The primary reforms must include: (1) Direct regional representation for a sizable percentage of Knesset members, to bring in some sense of accountability to voters among MKs (2) Raising the minimal threshold of votes necessary for individual MKs, to reduce the fragmentation of the Knesset into too many small parties (3) Enactment of a constitutional framework of some kind to specifically delineate the separation of powers between the Prime Minister, Knesset and Supreme Court. These are the minimal requirements that must be enacted to make any additional reforms work, be a return to direct elections of either the PM or a comparable executive position, or further efforts to make it more difficult to bring down a government before the completion of its elected term. Finally, the question is not whether a constitution would work for a country such as Israel, but whether a country such as Israel can continue to work without a constitution. The answer to the latter is "just barely," a fact increasingly more in evidence as Israel must face crucial questions are the designation of final borders, and finalizing the relationship between religion and state while remaining a Jewish State. Snap Judgment: A smart media buy Micahel Freund: There is no question that the Israeli political system is in dire need of change, as evidenced by the wave of scandals now plaguing everyone from the President to the former Justice Minister to the Prime Minister himself. Indeed, Israel's political life has come to resemble one of those daily afternoon soap operas so popular in the US, where the characters' behavior is so outlandish, that one continues to watch just to see what they could possibly do next. And that is exactly the problem: the system of government here is so out of whack that people are ready to try just about anything that might bring about change, without giving a lot of serious thought to the consequences. Instituting a presidential system or drawing up a constitution may or may not be prudent- but these are means to achieving an end, and not an end in and of themselves. The first thing that Israeli society needs to do is to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. Once we figure that out more clearly, a debate over the political reforms needed to achieve our collective goals will not only be more useful, but fruitful as well. Right On: A miracle of biblical proportions
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