(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When the Knesset speaker invites the most prestigious policy conference in the country to spend a day in the nation's parliament, it is an open question who is doing whom a favor.
The Herzliya Conference has become the most well-known among the yearly menu of policy conferences, which include Caesarea, Sderot and others. It was at the Herzliya Conference that former prime minister Ariel Sharon revealed his intention to "disengage" from the Gaza Strip, and the annual "Herzliya Speech" of prime ministers ever since is delivered live on national television.
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More than any other publicly accessible forum, the conference is followed as a barometer of Israeli strategic thinking. It is attended by much of the Israeli strategic establishment and has attracted a wide array of high-ranking participants from overseas, including the likes of outgoing US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, journalists, analysts, Jewish leaders and senior policy planners.
This year, Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik's invitation to the conference to open on Sunday at the Knesset prompted criticism from a small group of MKs concerned over what they perceive as the domination of governance by private institutions and financiers. The MKs made the surprising suggestion that parliaments should not offer their facilities to host private academic-strategic conferences.
On one level, this argument has been effectively answered by conference founder Prof. Uzi Arad, who pointed out that numerous democratic parliaments, the Knesset included, regularly hosted such gatherings.
But, at another level, the MKs' complaint helps focus the mind not on the conference itself but on the Knesset.
Anyone who follows the goings-on there in print or on television cannot help but be dumbfounded at the level of discussion. Too many members of Knesset are rightly notorious for preferring the sound bite to the serious work of understanding the issues and planning for a sustainable future.
The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee debates security policy in depth, usually away from the public eye. It is not unique, but it is also anything but the norm. Unless they are promised televised coverage, many MKs do not even bother to attend other committee meetings, where the real work is supposed to be done.
Proportional representation by party lists - or more specifically, the lack of a regional constituency for each MK - means that the parliament's members owe their political lives to party mechanisms who answer to arbiters of power often far removed from the public eye.
It is illustrative that American Senator Joseph Lieberman, having lost the Democratic Party nomination, was able to return to the Senate as the authentic representative of Connecticut's citizens. In a system of local representation, the people can wield power that counteracts a party machine, which is often too susceptible to narrow ideology and manipulative special interests. Such a system can reward personal talent and integrity.
In the Israeli system, where the lists themselves are made by party machines of varying degrees of opacity, individual honesty and the unsung work ethic of a serious policy planner are not rewarded, but penalized. It is maddening and tragic that talented individuals from a range of fields, including academia, the military, medicine and international finance, are marginalized in parliament or, more often, eschew politics altogether because of the impossibility of the system.
As evidenced in the Second Lebanon War and currently in the agony of Sderot, Israel has become abysmally slow to respond to the dire needs of populations that do not have easy access to the bureaucracy. It is a country at the mercy of unelected bureaucrats in powerful government offices, subject to major disruptions such as the education strikes that have crippled the current school year.
The situation is made all the more stark by the very high levels of innovation, responsiveness and sense of public responsibility coming from private citizens, whether in their military commitments, voluntarism or growing philanthropy. The Knesset's institutional inability to debate and craft policy has created the vacuum into which the private sector, including the Herzliya Conference, has moved.
Private conferences and "think tanks" are not infallible, nor is increasing their contribution to the policymaking process a panacea. But they have what to offer. If some Knesset members feel threatened by this, they should raise the level of policy oversight by the Knesset itself. A good start might be to implement the electoral reforms recommended by numerous studies and commissions, which would force MKs to become more accountable to the people.