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Newspaper readers on Sunday must have rubbed their eyes in disbelief and been certain they were experiencing deja vu, when learning of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's reported consent to a presidential system of government for Israel.
It was only five-and-a-half years ago that politicians and political commentators heaved a sigh of relief and said the country had been saved from catastrophe as a result of the repeal of the so-called Direct Election of Prime Ministers Law.
The law was passed in 1992 and was regarded by its initiators, which included some of the most talented members of the Knesset such as Amnon Rubinstein, Uriel Lynn and Haim Ramon, as a significant step foreword in reforming the political system.
Indeed, there was much to reform. Only two years earlier, in 1990, Shimon Peres orchestrated a coup against the Likud government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The government fell in a vote of no-confidence. But the plan went astray when Peres failed to garner a majority to back his bid to replace Shamir. After Likud and Labor tried desperately to bribe members of the various parties to switch allegiances, Shamir regained the upper hand and formed a new government.
In the meantime, however, the shamelessness of the politicians galvanized public opinion and reformist movements. Under their pressure, the Knesset passed the Direct Election of Prime Ministers Law. The main assumption underlying the law was that under the existing system, the smaller parties held the balance of power between the two main parties, the Likud and Labor, and used their leverage to extort concessions far beyond their electoral strength.
The new system was meant to eliminate that power by having the prime minister chosen by the people rather than by Knesset, so that the small parties would not be able to determine the choice.
The Direct Elections of Prime Minister Law was in effect for the elections for the 14th Knesset in 1996 - when Binyamin Netanyahu was chosen prime minister - and the 15th Knesset in 1999 - when Ehud Barak was elected. It was also in effect for the runoff election between Barak and Ariel Sharon in 2001.
But the law backfired. Instead of weakening the small parties, it strengthened them. Voters were able to cast two ballots, one for prime minister and the other for the Knesset. This freed them to choose the candidate they thought would make the best national leader - among those standing for election - while reserving their parliamentary ballot for their own favorite party, small or narrow in interests as it might be. As a result, the smaller parties grew in size and actually undermined what had been perceived until then as essentially a two-party system with a few small sectoral parties of disproportionate strength.
Thus, the system only served to enhance the power of the smaller parties. The prime minister was still dependent upon them since, according to the new law, he still required the confidence of the Knesset. The blackmailing and extortion continued. Netanyahu's government lasted only three years. Barak's lasted two.
On March 7, 2001, the Knesset voted 72 to 37, to return to the old parliamentary system of government.
Avigdor Lieberman, who was serving his first term in the Knesset at the time as head of the Israel-Beiteinu Party, did not attend the vote.
Uriel Lynn, who was head of the Knesset Law Committee in 1992 and steered the law through the Knesset despite the adamant opposition of his party leader, Yitzhak Shamir, still believes the Direct Election of the Prime Ministers Law was an excellent piece of legislation. However, he told The Jerusalem Post, that he and the other reformers had wanted to first pass legislation introducing Knesset representation by region to replace the system of proportional representation in accordance with national lists of candidates.
This, he believed would have provided the basis for a stable two-party system as opposed to the factionalism caused by the proportional representation system. But the Knesset refused to consider such a change. The reformers, said Lynn, opted for the direct elections system because it was the only reform they could achieve.
In describing his ideas on changing the system of government on Sunday, Lieberman did not mention regional elections. In addition to reintroducing the failed system that was in force in 1996 and 1999, he said he wanted to raise the election threshold to eliminate some of the smaller parties, and to establish a cabinet of experts chosen by the prime minister.
There are, of course, many details that are not yet clear. For example, will the government require the confidence of parliament. If not, who will supervise the actions of the executive. All in all, however, it does not appear that Lieberman's ideas are based on a deep, systematic and comprehensive assessment of the key problems in Israeli governance and what measures are necessary to resolve them.
If Olmert accepts Lieberman's demands as he has outlined them so far, the changes will likely create more problems, not solutions.
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