PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu walks atop an Israeli tank that had been lost during the First Lebanon War, in Moscow yesterday..
(photo credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)
‘King Bibi” was the title of an article that appeared in Time magazine describing how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had consolidated his political power with no realistic contender in sight.
That was four years ago.
Looking at the political landscape today, it is easy to reach the conclusion that not much has changed. Despite recent allegations involving French billionaire Arno Mimran and the controversy surrounding the replacement of Moshe Ya’alon with Avigdor Liberman as defense minister, Netanyahu seems to be unchallenged as prime minister. No candidate – whether on the Right or on the Left – seems to have a real chance of dethroning him.
The time has come to seriously consider legislation that limits the period of time a prime minister can serve. Doing so would invigorate the political system, make our democracy more robust and encourage serving prime ministers to be more focused on ruling and less on political survival.
Of course, the legislation being brought before the Knesset would not apply to Netanyahu. It would only go into effect in another eight years or after two governments come and go. But passing it would be a boon to Israeli democracy for generations to come. Support for it crosses party lines – one bill is sponsored by Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett said he supports the idea.
As noted by The Jerusalem Post’s Knesset Correspondent Lahav Harkov, Netanyahu is currently the second-longest serving prime minister of Israel after David Ben-Gurion, who served 4,575 days, or about 12-and-a-half years.
For Netanyahu to surpass Ben-Gurion, he must remain prime minister until September 23, 2018. And judging from his present popularity and the stability of his coalition, there is a very good chance he will.
Many would argue that it can be good for a country to have a long-serving head of government. Franklin Roosevelt, the only US president to serve more than two terms before the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution made that impossible, was elected a third time in 1940 with his Depression fighting policies incomplete and a world war under way. This probably added stability at a critical time in American history. In Israel both Ben-Gurion and Netanyahu have been highly effective prime ministers.
And there are many Western countries that have long-serving leaders Germany’s Angela Merkel has been in power since 2005, and until he was replaced at the end of last year, Stephen Harper had served as prime minister of Canada since 2006.
But just because these countries and others – such as Austria and New Zealand – have had long-standing leaders doesn’t means this a good policy. For instance, electing FDR for a fourth term – with the war essentially over, his health questionable and his vice president kept uninformed about key policies – was a bad idea.
It was in the wake of FDR’s fourth victory that America was shocked into action. Americans realized he had become a king-like figure, deposed only by his death. This was inconsistent with American values and philosophies. Until it was violated by FDR, there had been an unwritten rule that US presidents did not seek a third term.
George Washington could have been king of America in the sense that the presidency was his for as long as he wanted it. However, he served for two terms and then stepped down. Men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison followed in his footsteps.
Some would argue that the American model is irrelevant to Israel. It doesn’t really make sense to limit the prime minister’s stint as leader in a system in which he or she is not directly elected. The law should not control the internal functions of the political parties and whom they can elect in their primaries or central committee meetings.
We would retort, however, that the same logic that applies for heads of nations applies for heads of political parties. A single person should be prevented from consolidating too much power. New candidates bring with them new ideas, which prevents stagnation. Energy is channeled into innovation, not perpetuating the status quo.
The prime minister should be given ample time to implement policies and influence the direction of the nation. But when time is up, he or she should step down and give the next person a chance.