Editor's Notes: Please, no more of the same

Bad enough that we now face the paralysis of new elections. Worse still if we get a similar batch of inappropriate leaders in an unreformed, ungovernable system.

By DAVID HOROVITZ
June 12, 2008 22:13
Editor's Notes: Please, no more of the same

david horovitz 224.88. (photo credit: )

In late November 2005, Uriel Reichman, the founder and president of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and a founder, too, of the Shinui party, announced that he was going into politics full-time, joining Ariel Sharon's newly coalescing Kadima with the intention of becoming Israel's minister of education if Kadima came to power. Five months later, in the elections for Israel's 17th Knesset, Kadima won 29 seats and did indeed take power. But the guarantee Reichman thought he had extracted from Sharon that he would be given the education portfolio, and with it the opportunity to put his unique experience to work in healing that abysmal bureaucracy, proved empty. Maneuvering to build the inevitable multi-party coalition, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave the education job to Labor's Yuli Tamir, and offered Reichman, a law professor who had previously headed Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Law, the entirely appropriate post of minister of justice instead. Except that Reichman had not gone into politics to become the justice minister. Barely a week after he had taken his seat in the Knesset, therefore, he gave it up, and went back to the IDC. He had promised his students he would leave them only if he could impact Israel's governance in the area where he felt most capable. And unlike the promise that the veteran politicians had made to him, and breached, Reichman's was a vow he was intent on keeping. The two years of Tamir's stewardship have been marked by some of the most bitter labor disputes in the ugly history of Israeli education, complete with prolonged university closures and a protracted teachers' strike that irrevocably gnawed away the heart of this school year for most 8th-12th graders. Nobody could have done much worse than the hapless Labor minister. It is a safe bet that Reichman would have done significantly better. Reichman, and by extension Israel's students, were not the only victims of the pitiful coalition negotiations presided over by Olmert two years ago. The appointment as defense minister of Amir Peretz, a former trade union leader with a self-acknowledged inexpertise in security related matters, was a direct factor in the dire management of the Second Lebanon War, as detailed by the Winograd Committee that investigated it. Some 160 Israelis lost their lives in that mishandled conflict. Yet in the narrow context of Israel's unworkable coalition politics, Olmert was doing what he had to do. Deprived, like every prime minister in the whole history of the state, of a single-party parliamentary majority, he cobbled together the best multi-party coalition he knew how. If pacifying his junior partner Labor with the Education Ministry meant losing the expert input of Uriel Reichman, so be it. And if, however risibly, the defense portfolio was deemed to be the job in which Peretz's ambitions could be sated while minimizing his capacity to threaten Olmert's rule, then so be that, too. It wasn't as though there was a war looming... With the Olmert-led coalition now apparently entering its final months, and early election fever starting to spread, the different but similarly dismal cases of Uriel Reichman and Amir Peretz should serve as cautionary tales for anybody naïve enough to believe that salvation in the governance of Israel is at hand. For what they both illustrate is that governing Israel with the current political system is quite simply impossible. The nationwide, low-Knesset-threshold, pure proportional representation system means there can never be stable, single-party government. Coalition pressures will continue to keep some of the more qualified people away from the jobs in which they might excel. And the perennial narrow political pressures mean that the prime minister, while looking ahead at how best to steer the Israeli ship of state, must also constantly look over his shoulder to ensure that his ministerial partner-rivals are not able to exploit his steps to advance their own careers at his expense. But that's only part of the problem. The qualities required to thrive in the current political system - with its absence of constituency responsibilities and thus the lack of politicians' direct accountability to the general public - are not always, to put it mildly, the same qualities required for good governance. The skills displayed and perfected by a rising politician in securing a high position on a party's Knesset slate, achieved via the astute manipulation of party machinery and of the party's narrow voter base, for instance, are the direct opposite of the imperative that ought to guide an elected national representative: to ensure scrupulously fair and equal representation for members of the public. Politics may invariably involve a certain amount of wheeling and dealing in the national interest; our system seems increasingly to attract and favor particularly unsavory wheeler-dealers at the expense of more salubrious and constructive activists. This week's Israel Democracy Institute survey, showing only 16 percent of the public regarding the Knesset as our primary protector of democracy, is only the latest example of our fading faith in our elected leaders. But the public must take its share of the blame, too - for its unique readiness to re-embrace failed politicians, including failed prime ministers, two of whom (Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak) are now at the forefront of the race to bounce back and succeed Olmert; for its willingness to vote for parties with no history of achievement and, in some cases, no record at all (such as the Gil Pensioners), with predictably dire consequences; and for a shortness of collective memory that sees it swing behind this or that previously derided populist orator on the strength of a cynically timed stirring utterance or two (step forward today's flavor-of-the-month Shaul Mofaz). Plainly, in its desperate lurch from one superficially attractive leader to another, the electorate is casting around for a political panacea, even as it recognizes the impossibility of the quest. But the public's biggest failure is in not coming together to protest the current impossible system of government and thus force its reform. Reform that would encourage exemplary Israelis to enter politics - the kind of Israelis whose creativity, initiative, work ethic and patriotism are so demonstrably present everywhere from hi-tech to volunteerism. Reform that would enable them to thrive if they did take the political plunge. ALMOST A year and a half ago, the 70-strong Commission for Examination of the Structure of Governance issued a blueprint for precisely such an overhaul. It prescribed that only 60 of the 120 Knesset seats be allocated through proportional representation nationwide, with the other 60 MKs chosen within 17 constituencies. It set clear-cut criteria for party primaries. It limited the cabinet to 18 ministers, and mandated that their appointment be vetted by a Knesset committee, with adequate, ongoing Knesset oversight of their work. It also proposed various measures designed to bolster government stability and efficiency, and to reduce corruption - an issue that has become still more central in the months since it turned in its report. (Under its election system, the Commission's simulations showed, big parties would grow stronger - the Likud would have won 48 seats in 2003, not 38; and Kadima would have won 39 in 2006, not 29 - and medium-sized and small parties would be hurt but would not disappear. This would facilitate, if not single-party government, then at least two-party coalitions rather than today's wretched three-, four- and five-party partnerships.) Interviewed in this column in February 2007, the Commission's chair, Hebrew University President Menachem Magidor, signed off with the declaration that if these painstakingly drafted ideas could be kept "on the public agenda, there's a chance that the politicians will feel the need to act. It's up to the public," he said. "I certainly hope [the reform program] doesn't wind up gathering dust." Sadly and predictably, that's precisely what has happened. Evidently convinced that no amount of protest will persuade the current crop of politicians to actually respond to the urgent need for change, the public is taking the silent route, telling pollsters it's fed up with its leaders, and gradually reducing its participation on election day. But history, even relatively recent history, belies that sense of public impotence. Nationwide fury at the buying of political loyalties when the farcically misnamed "unity government" collapsed in 1990 - with MKs defecting from government to opposition and back for the price of a ministerial portfolio or a guaranteed Knesset seat - prompted a rising tide of protest that began with hunger strikes and sit-ins and culminated in a massive Tel Aviv demonstration and a petition signed by half a million people. The Knesset, temporarily, felt sufficiently defensive and chastened to half-change the system, enacting the law for the direct election of the prime minister, though it fought shy of wider reform. Direct election was a disaster, with Israeli voters defying expectation and giving support to still more special interest parties, thus further destabilizing governance. The reform was subsequently rescinded. But the issue here is not the ill-fated attempt to fix the system last time but, rather, the public's demonstrable capacity to impose change on its political leaders. Israel truly cannot today afford the paralysis of bitter months of party bickering ahead of elections - least of all with Iran strengthening its influence on every border and moving ahead with its nuclear program. But neither can the electorate dare sheepishly usher in another Knesset much like the last in terms of the quality of its members, their accountability to the public and their capacity to govern. Our politicians are meant to be there to represent us, to be accountable to us, and to act effectively in our interests. But the process by which they are chosen is demonstrably bankrupt, and once they are elected the system prevents them from doing their job properly. We need to insist that it be changed, and to give our support only to those who we can trust to change it. The dwindling months of a parliamentary term represent the ideal opportunity for parties to earn the public's respect by pushing for electoral reform - especially if they are persuaded they will be punished, come polling day, for ignoring the will of the people. It's the only way we'll get truly accountable government, avoid having the likes of Amir Peretz shunted into the Defense Ministry and attract leaders of the quality, integrity and commitment of Uriel Reichman. Of course, Reichman was also the guiding force behind the half-baked reform for the direct election of the prime minister in the early 1990s. But then, nobody's perfect.


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