Time for reform

CEPAC, a grassroots group, seeks the improvement of the Knesset election system, as well as other important changes.

October 15, 2006 08:24
ballot box 88

ballot box 88. (photo credit: )


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There has never been a time in Israel's history when its government has not been under severe scrutiny and subject to criticism. Take any gathering of friends around a coffee table, and by the end of the evening one wonders how the Knesset can survive without the input of concerned citizens. While nobody hesitates to blame individuals or political parties for the ongoing cycle of crises in this country, the truth is that the majority of citizens do not get involved in activating change. "That's how it is"; "There's nothing that can be done"; "It will be OK" are often the first Hebrew phrases learned by new immigrants. In the aftermath of the recent Lebanon war, enormous gaps in the existing system were revealed, including a lack of professionalism in the cabinet where ministers are appointed as part of political trading rather than because of their expertise. While blame was heaped on a government that had been in power for only a few months, the lack of preparedness and reduced budgets allotted to the defense forces were also the fault of previous administrations. The population of Israel pulled together in an extraordinarily altruistic fashion, providing refuge, food and relief - all of which should have been organized at the government level. The care of citizens in the North also depended largely on the efficiency of its local municipalities. Here, too, there was a large gap in behavior: In one town, allegedly 90% of the municipal workers disappeared with the municipality's cars, while in others, mayors and their colleagues were visible organizing refuge and relief while often endangering themselves. Almost prophetically, a book entitled Israel, a Dream Willed… To Be Fulfilled, written by Elaine Levitt more than a year ago, deals with this lack of accountability and the need for electoral reform whereby regional representatives in the Knesset will work according to the needs of his or her local community. In lecturing about her book, Levitt has attracted like-minded citizens who have reactivated a lobby for electoral reform. Levitt was born in Philadelphia during the month of Kristallnacht and emigrated from Oklahoma City in 1973, arriving in Israel at the time of the Yom Kippur War with a young family. Although she did not lose any direct relatives in the Holocaust, she is aware of how much this shaped her life and convinced her of the significance of a Jewish state. After a settling-in period at the Mevaseret Zion absorption center, she used her experience and skills as co-owner of an employment service in the US to take on a job at the Jewish Agency Bureau for Placement of Professionals in Jerusalem. In the years since her aliya, Levitt has divided her time and energy between founding a personnel business and assuming a leadership role in several voluntary organizations dealing with immigration and social issues. These paths have converged, and her experience has motivated her to lead a campaign for electoral reform, called Citizens Empowerment Public Action Campaign (CEPAC). Before Chaim Herzog became president of the State of Israel in 1983 he and other Western immigrants and veteran Israelis, founded a lobby called the Committee of Concerned Citizens (CCC). It succeeded in one of its aims - the direct election of the prime minister - but never achieved its ultimate goal of introducing regional representation in the Knesset. Levitt - who had been a member of the CCC - and the grassroots volunteers who are now continuing this lobby are convinced that regional representation is the only way to reduce the horse-trading whenever a new government is formed. She does not agree that the system cannot be changed. If a Knesset member is accountable to his/her constituency and is voted in or out according to how he/she has served his/her local community, the needs of each region will get equal attention in government prioritizing, Levitt argues. Levitt is not just a talker but activates the causes close to her heart. During the 1967 Six Day War, she served as regional president of Hadassah and met with state representatives to lobby for Israel in Washington, DC. On arriving in Israel, Levitt had many contacts with immigrants from North America and soon became active in the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), serving for some time as national president. For one year she managed an absorption center and became deeply involved in the problems of immigrants from disadvantaged countries. Always interested in employment opportunities for immigrants, she decided to learn more about development towns. Some 30 years ago she took her family to Ma'alot. It was intended to be a learning experience for one year, but she lived in Ma'alot for 27 years before moving with her growing family to nearby Kfar Vradim, where she is involved in every aspect of life in the north Galilee community. Under the umbrella of the Jewish Agency, Levitt created and managed a trial living experience program that offered young people from abroad the opportunity to live and work in development towns. Many of the graduates remained in Israel, some settling in development towns. Serving as a volunteer with the Ma'alot-Tarshiha municipality, Levitt is impressed with the level of coexistence in that area between Jews and Arabs, Orthodox and secular. She feels that the tolerance that prevails there is a blueprint for the realism of an ideal Israeli society. To Mayor Shlomo Buchbut she attributes the conception of Ma'alot as the jewel in the crown of development towns. In her early days there, however, Levitt made a strong statement by protesting against housing allocation policies in development towns set by central offices in the Ministry of Housing. While new immigrants, as well as young Israeli couples, were desperately in need of housing, entire apartment blocks stood empty in Ma'alot. Levitt broke into one of the apartments and squatted there to draw attention to this situation. She was arrested and spent a night in jail, but she achieved her goal and soon the apartments were allocated and occupied. Levitt then set up her own employment agency, Kedumim. Her office is in Tefen, the Galilee industrial park near Ma'alot, with several branches and franchises in Israel's larger urban centers. The time is ripe for CEPAC. President Moshe Katsav mandated the establishment of a study commission for government reform, with committees composed of academics, businesspeople and former government officials. CEPAC has been established as an organization that will be cooperative but independent of this commission. An additional cooperation is with the National Association of Political Scientists, headed by Tel Aviv University political science professor Gideon Doron. Haifa resident Rose Cogan, convinced of the need for electoral reform, read Levitt's book and invited her to speak at a local Hadassah meeting. Following the interest generated by Levitt's lecture, Cogan asked, "What now?" She joined Levitt's campaign to form the organization. Cogan is now the Haifa coordinator of CEPAC, with Dorothy Fajans and Eve Schorr. CEPAC activists come from many sectors of Israeli society. They include environmentalists, industrialists, scientists, health researchers, educators and media representatives. "The backbone of the organization is the ordinary Israeli - the regular people who really care," says Levitt. "With no funding, our own volunteers absorb the expenses," she adds, holding up a petition that demands regional Knesset representation for which 100,000 signatures are sought. "Our Web site was donated. This, together with a Hebrew-speaking publicity consultant, is helping our outreach to the Hebrew media," says Levitt, adding that the Web site (www.cepac.org.il ) is being translated into Arabic. CEPAC's proposal for electoral reform is two-pronged: direct regional representation in the Knesset chosen by the people; and a cabinet not selected from Knesset members trading for prime jobs but rather made up of professionals in the specific fields. For example, the defense minister must be a military professional, the health minister an expert in public health. This would prevent incompetent and unqualified MKs from being responsible for areas in which they have no experience. "Good people don't want to go into politics today because of all the manipulation and dirty dealings," says Levitt. At present, some ministries are much sought after for political ambition, while others are neglected because they do not bring prestige or promotion to the minister in charge. This system of having a cabinet separate from the Knesset would attract a better caliber of people who can contribute their expertise, Levitt asserts. And a Knesset comprised of representatives of the regions would work for the good of their communities - and be accountable if they did not do their jobs. While the initial CEPAC thrust is to reform the election system as it relates to the Knesset, the organization seeks other important changes - the first being the establishment of a constitution. "It is not enough to change and amend laws according to the climate of the day," says Levitt. "There must be a binding constitution." As stated in her book, she hopes that a stronger Knesset and less coalition politics could result in the reduction of ministries. Israel has twice the number of ministries as the US, and a reduction changes the entire structure of government. Instead of a prime minister, a premier would be voted in by direct election. Ideally, this would not be a political position, but the contender would be drawn from Israel's top administrators and entrepreneurs. He or she would have four major areas of responsibility: leadership of the nation; head of government administration; Israel's face to the world; and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. While not being expected to have skills in all these areas, a cabinet of professionals would run the ministries, and MKs would represent their regions. A total of nine ministries would encompass (and streamline) all the government departments and their managers, as well as the civil service. This, in turn, would vastly reduce their running expenses. All cabinet departments would have parallel committees in the Knesset and use outside consultants as needed. Levitt's dream of utopia, which has so inspired lobbyists for electoral reform, would prevent the overlapping and duplicating of offices and services that usually result in the job's not getting done at all. At the same time, the best of Israel's experts would make sure that each ministry would be run efficiently and make appropriate decisions. The country needs political reform, and this group of volunteers has prepared a blueprint. It remains to be seen whether the nation's leaders will adopt some of these resolutions. CEPAC's proposed ministries * The ministry of foreign affairs would encompass all representation abroad and deals with immigration emissaries and the Israeli connection with the Diaspora. * The finance ministry would control all financial matters, including supervision of banks, public funding and NGOs, commerce and industry, budgets and Israel promotions. * The ministry of security & defense would combine control of the IDF, intelligence services and the police. * The education ministry would also include cultural and sports activities. * The ministry of the interior would deal with population issues and local authorities, welfare, immigrant absorption and religious affairs, as well as supervising local and national elections. * The ministry of labor would ensure a healthy work environment, enforces wage standards and safety regulations and oversee job retraining. * The ministry of health would oversee compliance with regulations of health institutions and personnel, promote health education, regulate standards and use of medications, and enforce non-smoking laws. * The ministry of justice would safeguard rights of the individual and administrate the judicial system. * The infrastructure ministry would include road building and safety, housing and industrial construction, transportation, urban development and environmental issues.

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