almost empty knesset 224 88 aj.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Any Internet user knows it: You send an e-mail and immediately you get an answer - your addressee is out of office.
The government of Israel is permanently out of office. Its ministries have recently become totally incommunicado. Offices and services which are supposed to serve the public are inaccessible by either phone, letter or e-mail. Even the standard letter - "We have received your complaint and are dealing with it" - or the voice mails "please try later" - has become rare. Only the lucky few citizens who have the unlisted cellphone numbers of the minister or director-general of the ministry can hope to access them. And then when you finally get him or her, and you pour your heart out, you are in for a surprise.
You complain that the ministry is plagued by inefficiency, that its officials are lazy nincompoops, that they fail to do their duty. The response is typically Israeli: "You are telling me?!" And there are those who add: "Come, let me tell you a few things you do not know about the office I run." What should be your reaction? Burst out with wild laughter? Cry your heart out?
INDEED, PARALYSIS rules the executive branch. This is of course an exaggeration. Governments are not always paralyzed. Occasionally, there is still life in them old bones. Actually, Israel has seen, in recent years, a number of far-reaching reforms in the deregulation of financial markets, in telecommunications, in energy policy, in public health and in higher education. Some of these reforms are more radical and far-reaching than equivalent reforms undertaken in European countries. But it should be noted that these reforms were due to the obsessive tenacity of individual ministers, who could act within their ministries, without resorting to interministerial cooperation.
A comprehensive, all encompassing undertaking is simply impossible. Could the country, for instance, repeat one of its famous national plans, such as transporting the waters of the Kinneret to the Negev? The very idea is preposterous. The plan would nowadays drown in a sea of journalistic attacks, a myriad of legal objections and legions of interdepartmental squabbles. The incredible energy of Israelis will be found elsewhere; the governmental capacity to act has come to a standstill.
FURTHERMORE, THOSE few ministers who succeeded in carrying out reforms are unusual persons. Seized with the idea that reforming the system is essential, they were ready to tackle opposing journalists, braved the doubts and hesitations of legal advisers and became obsessed with the idea of overcoming a plethora of internal hurdles in order to carry out their ideas. But ordinary ministers - here and abroad - are not made of such obstinate stuff. A political system functions properly if it enables ordinary politicians to carry out their policies. The ordinary minister is not, nor should he or she be, a half-crazed reformer. Ministers as a rule tend to give in to the current paralysis and are content with the usual PR spins and non-news news covering his or her goings-on.
Indeed, our government is now in the state similar to that of the Third French Republic on the eve of World War II. In the face of grave dangers outside, it sinks further and further into marginal squabbles which render the body politic a helpless creature. Only a fool will fail to see the danger which this paralysis involves. True, in a liberal democracy minorities enjoy special protection, but, above all, it is the majority which has the right to have its say through the political process. It is the constitutional duty of the government to govern. There is no rule of law without a rule.
THE ELECTORAL system sanctifies representation as dictated by am extreme, purely proportional system. No weight is given to the need for effective government. Israel is an extreme case; all democracies - except for Israel and the Netherlands - have formulated some compromise between representation and governability. As long as the present system prevails, the majority will have to give in to the minority swing parties, without which there is no coalition. Most Israelis want a common core curriculum in all schools; but the haredi minority rejects this idea with regard to its own publicly-financed educational system. The result is a law passed late in the night - without it being discussed publicly or even appearing on the Knesset order-of-the-day - which did away with the court-ordained rule that without a core curriculum a school is not entitled to the taxpayer's money.
On the Internet, the "out of office" notice adds: "will be back in office in two weeks time." Our government is different. It will not be back in office in two weeks time, nor will it be back in office after the elections - whatever their results. The government will be back in office only if some changes are made in our system. The present 2 percent threshold should go up in line with the 4%-5% common in Europe and in New Zealand, preference in establishing a government should be given to the party with a plurality of votes and a part of the Knesset must be elected in multimember constituencies.
The writer is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a former minister of education and Knesset member, as well as the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.