Change we can’t believe in

Incremental change will allow the Israeli public to continue enjoying the clear advantages of a parliamentary democracy, while repairing and decreasing the structural flaws of that system.

February 28, 2012 23:11
3 minute read.
OUR MAN in Tel Aviv. The race to succeed Meir Daga

Dagan 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The Israeli political system may never have been a parliamentary paradise, but our governments always possessed a respectable level of effectiveness.

Coalitions were traditionally formed by the largest party, led by a prime minister who was able to make important decisions: going to war, initiating peace processes, absorbing millions of new immigrants, overhauling the economy, and more.

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But then came the electoral sledgehammer.

In the 1990s, Israel hastily adopted a two-ballot system of direct elections in which separate votes were cast for prime minister and party. It was a disaster.

This unfortunate reform hamstringed the large political parties, significantly shrinking their size and influence in favor of smaller parties with narrow interests. This of course compromised governability and entrenched social rifts in Israeli society.

Thankfully, we repealed the two-ballot system, but we have been left with an open wound that continues to bleed.

Anyone familiar with the enormous budgets divvied out to the smaller coalition partners to keep them quiet and happy knows this to be true. The system needs to be bandaged, and now. But Israel also needs supervised, responsible, long-term rehabilitation to return to full parliamentary health.

Once again, there are dangerous voices that are giving false hope with promises of a quick fix, of total change in one-fell-swoop.

The two options being proposed are in fact quite similar – a switch to a presidential democracy and a return, through a back door, to the two-ballot system. The first option is being spearheaded by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman; the second is part of the platform of the new “Yesh Sikui” movement led by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and can also be inferred from the rhetoric of Yair Lapid, who is the midst of founding a new centrist party.

Much of what is being put forward in the new movement’s platform is useful, but becomes irrelevant in light of its core proposal that the prime minister can only be elected if his/her party receives 48 or more mandates; if no party receives enough mandates, a second round of elections will be conducted in which the two largest parties compete for the premiership. Two rounds and two ballots, however, would bring us right back to the disaster of direct elections.

These proposals, both of which resemble a presidential system, are detrimental to any effort to strike a balance in the Israeli political landscape between representation of constituents’ interests and effective governance. Both would harm the complex makeup of Israel’s social fabric and strengthen sectoral parties, whose supporters would continue to split their votes. Both would further dilute the centralization of power, a dilution that is already paralyzing effective governance.

In addition, focusing on the cult of personality by concentrating more power in the chief executive – be it a president or a prime minister elected in a second round of voting – would lead to a dangerous “Putinization” of Israeli democracy, where leaders come to resemble czars more than prime ministers and presidents.

The Israel Democracy Institute has prepared four avenues to reform the current system: Restoration of Israel’s political parties; enhancing the efficiency of the Knesset and the legislative process; democratization of the election process; strengthening the ability of the prime minister to govern.

The strengthening of a parliamentary democracy must be an evolutionary, not revolutionary, process, and therefore changes must be moderate and incremental. While each can stand alone, when implemented together, they will fortify one another, and will improve the system exponentially.

Perhaps we should take our cues from the structural underpinnings of American democracy. There, the founding fathers imposed systems of governance via the Constitution in a top-down manner, and they also allowed for the organic and gradual growth of democratic institutions from the bottom-up, through ongoing interpretation of that Constitution, not through wildcat populism.

Incremental change will allow the Israeli public to continue enjoying the clear advantages of a parliamentary democracy, while repairing and decreasing the structural flaws of that system.

Let us learn from our own historical and political mistakes so we don’t doom ourselves to repeat them.

The writer is president of the Israel Democracy Institute and the author of the forthcoming Democracy Without a Constitution – How Can Israel Survive?

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