As the Knesset returns to session on October 15, one of the central bills that
will be discussed in committee is the Governability Bill, which is meant to
enable the government to implement policies it was elected to
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Israel suffers from
serious problems of governability.
Ministers and Knesset members complain
constantly about their inability to advance policy agendas. This creates a
situation where not only are competent elected officials unable to serve their
country properly, but in addition, incompetent elected officials have a great
excuse for doing nothing. To compound the problem, this situation creates an
atmosphere of lack of confidence in government with many Israelis starting to
doubt the effectiveness of the democratic process.
frustration at the current situation should not rush us into an ill-thought-out
solution. This has already happened in the past: exasperated by the lack of
governability, electoral law was changed in 1992 which mandated that Israelis
would vote with two ballots, one for the Knesset and one for the prime
While hoping to improve governability, this law ended up
hurting it. Instead of strengthening the prime minister, by giving him a direct
mandate; the law created a situation where people felt comfortable electing a
prime minster while not voting for his party in the parliament. This left the
office of the Prime Minister without any parliamentary support. This legislative
change failed and the law was repealed in 2003.
The previous example
shows us the problematic nature of any proposal to change the current electoral
system. Small changes can have big effects, often unforeseen.
as this bill will become a subject of discussion in the Knesset’s next session,
I want to go through what I believe should be the main principles that guide
legislators when evaluating this bill. I will not go into the details of the
proposed bill in this current column, but will rather focus my analysis of what
I believe should be the guiding principles.
Do not weaken the Knesset
first principle is critical: Governability should not weaken the
The Knesset consists of elected officials who represent the
people of Israel. It is of course far more representative than the government
since it includes the opposition.
A strong legislative branch is
essential to a healthy system of checks and balances which protects citizens
from dishonest leaders. It ensures that leaders implement the policies for which
they receive a mandate. If anything, in the current system, the Knesset is
incredibly weak and unable to successfully argue against government bills. This
is true because of the large number of small parties which would need to come
together to build a successful opposition, and also because of the “party list”
system through which Knesset members are required to show more loyalty to their
party than to their electorate in order to stay in the Knesset and therefore
almost never oppose the policies of the leaders of their parties, even when it
is not the wish of their electorate.
The most obvious example of the
weakness of the Knesset and the strength of an elected official can be seen in
the disengagement. In a healthy electoral system, a prime minister should not be
able to get elected on an explicit promise to fight plans such as the
disengagement, and then decide to advance such a plan. In a healthy system,
Ariel Sharon should not have been able to implement the disengagement before
first going to new elections. However, he did just that.
As a right-wing
person, I do not want any new disengagement. I do not want a right-wing prime
minister who decides to change his mind and start supporting left-wing policies.
However, the questions we are dealing with are systemic and therefore both sides
of the coin need to be looked at, and so I ask the leftist readers of this
column: If a left-wing prime minister was elected, and one day, for some unknown
reason, he decided to annex Judea and Samaria and build a number of new cities
there, without going to new elections, how would you feel? In a healthy
democratic system, a prime minister should not be able to do such a thing and
his main obstacle should be the Knesset providing for checks and
The improvement of governability should not come at the cost of
the Knesset’s power.
Strengthen elected officials
If this is the case,
how should one improve governability in Israel? The truth is that the real cause
for the lack of governability in Israel is much less popular than electoral
reform. It is in the relationship between elected officials and unelected
In a healthy system, the elected officials decide and civil
servants implement. In Israel, the elected officials try to decide, but are
obstructed by civil servants who see such initiatives as inimical to their own
This is true in the case of legal advisers, the subject of my
last column, who have a formalized veto power and can decide to block any
decision which they believe to be illegal, even if they are wrong and without
going to court.
Legal advisers often have other reasons than purely legal
reasons for not allowing policy changes. However, it is also true of the Budget
Department in the Finance Ministry that can decide which money goes where, or of
the Civil Service Commission that decides who can hire personnel and when. It is
also true of simple bureaucrats in various government offices, most notably
maybe in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, but also in ministries such as the
Education Ministry, who knowingly push forward policy agendas that are
completely at odds with the desires of elected officials.
Of course, they
have the purest intentions, wanting to do the “right” thing. However, the right
thing to do in a democracy is for the people to rule themselves through their
elected officials and not for bureaucrats to make decisions and stop policy
implementation or policy change.
If someone wants to truly help
governability in Israel, his main focus should be on strengthening elected
officials and bringing back bureaucrats to a policy-implementing position
instead of a policy-making position.
Fight blackmail That being said, one
cannot ignore that our electoral system does have some problems and that the
governability problems are not limited to issues of bureaucracy.
the big problems with the Israeli system is the presence of sectorial parties
which do not have the national interest at heart but rather try to maximize what
their sector gets from the government. This is often done through blackmail of
the type: “Either you give me more than your opponent for my sector, or I will
vote against you.”
Truthfully, this is not foreign to
In America, although there is a two-party system, the same
thing happens. The only difference is that it happens on a geographical level
and not on a sectorial level, with each house representative or senator trying
to get more from government for the geographical area he represents. This leads
to the famous pork-barrelfilled bills that America knows too
However, the fact that this exists in other countries does not mean
that it is not a problem.
The government shutdown in the US is a clear
sign that no system is perfect.
Strengthen the link between the electors
and the elected officials
One of the most striking differences between the
Israeli system and other systems comes from the lack of accountability in the
Israeli system. In fact, many joke about the fact that there is no real word to
translate accountability into in Hebrew.
This fact stems from a reality
we hinted at before. The “party list” system through which electors choose
between party lists and not actual people means that the elected officials are
accountable to the people who decide who gets on the party list and not to
regular citizens. These people can be party chairmen, party members or selection
committees. However, even parties which let party members decide who goes on the
list are not representative of the general electorate and are often overtaken by
interest groups, be they political, ideological or economic interests.
proper reform has to strengthen the link between the elected officials,
individually, and the people who elect them in order to strengthen
accountability. Many propose a regional system with counties, as in many other
areas in the world. Other options are also available. However, one thing is
clear: something must be done.
The issues of
governability are definitely one area where policy change would be
It is my hope that this coming Knesset session will include
a deep conversation about the consequences of the proposed bill, according to
the principles outlined above, to ensure that the new system will give the
ability for the citizens of people to get the government they want.
is an attorney who graduated from McGill University Law School and Hebrew
University’s honors graduate program in public policy. He is currently working
as a research fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum.