Global Agenda: Governability

For the last decade the question has been whether Israeli governments can govern.

October 20, 2006 05:33
3 minute read.
knesset 88

knesset 88. (photo credit: )


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In the context of a good news-bad news framework, the issue of governability in Israel is fairly straightforward. The bad news is that this has been a chronic problem that has gotten much worse in the last 15 years or so and is now a critical concern. The good news is that not only is there a general awareness of this problem, but that its advance from chronic to critical is spurring action and - best of all - it is treatable. Governability may not actually be a legitimate word, but I've been using it for the last decade to describe the question of whether Israeli governments can govern. After all, that's what governments are supposed to do, so if they can't fulfill their most basic function, the whole system is clearly dysfunctional. This has nothing to do with specific policies or parties. It relates to the basic question of whether the existing mechanisms - the constitutional and electoral systems and all the rest - can generate a government, whether coalition or other, that can realize its declared legislative and political program. Increasingly, the answer has come to be "no," or at least "not really." This has nothing to do with parties, since coalitions comprising very different parties have been afflicted in very similar ways. The severity of the problem may be judged by the fact that already in 1992 a reform aimed at solving it was put into effect. This turned out to be a disaster, making things much worse rather than better - but what is remarkable is that the political environment of the late 80s and early 90s that triggered the demand for reform, seems today to be a desirable state, not an intolerable one. The general elections of the 1980s produced two nearly equal blocs that neutralized each other - so that they had to try and work together in "grand coalitions." That experience was so wearing that a consensus developed demanding sweeping change - which was duly delivered and, unfortunately, proved massively counter-productive. The erosion of the two big parties that dominated the 1970s and 1980s has now reached the point where both Labor and Likud are barely medium-sized parties, unable to lead effective coalitions - and hence unable to govern. The more frequently elections are held, the quicker the coalitions emerging from them fall apart and the more ungovernable the country becomes. This process feeds the urgency and stridency of the reform movement. However, like most ideas pushed by a loud and confident consensus (the threat of global warming, for example), it is a good idea to "revisit" some of the basic premises underpinning the consensus. In the case of Israeli governability, three such points require serious thought, not slogans: 1. The objective facts demonstrate that Israel, its governments, citizens, armed forces and other national frameworks and systems, has successfully withstood repeated, intense, exogenous shocks in recent years. Furthermore, as noted in previous columns, the generally demanding and exacting global financial markets are very happy with the way Israel has been and is being run. Specifically, the number and scope of structural reforms legislated and being implemented in "ungovernable" and "corrupt" Israel in the last five years is far greater than in those paragons of democratic functioning, the US, the UK and Germany. So could we define what exactly is the problem? 2. The flip side of a mindset convinced that the Israeli system is in total collapse is the belief in the wonders of a specific foreign system. This belief is particularly widespread among readers of this paper, with many ex-Americans convinced that the US system is the greatest, while ex-Brits are equally enamored with the abstract wonders of the unwritten (but nevertheless rapidly unraveling) British constitution. Many Israelis are also brainwashed to believe that one or other of the Anglo-Saxon systems is the ideal. However, any objective consideration of the level of democracy (such as voting levels, gerrymandering) or governability (welfare, health, pension and other reforms) in these countries must lead to quite different conclusions. 3. Given the bad experience Israel had with sweeping reform, you would think that the advantages of gradual and piecemeal changes would be obvious - rather than the Pied-Piper messianism of total revolution that ensures only immediate upheaval but demands that its ability to deliver real improvements be taken on faith. This skepticism is not saying that everything is great and nothing needs fixing. It merely suggests that the fashionable wailing is grossly overdone, in this as in other areas of public life. In this environment, great care needs to be taken to do what is necessary - and not what is unnecessary, counter-productive or plain damaging.

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