Think About It: Trump and Israel’s governance

If Netanyahu were less concerned with his own political survival and more with getting things done, his governability problems would be reduced.

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the Trump tower (photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the Trump tower
(photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections has undoubtedly raised the spirits of our prime minister.
The first reason is that Trump is not expected to be as critical of Israel as President Barack Obama has been, and shares with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strong opposition to the nuclear agreement signed with Iran.
Secondly, the Jews who surround Trump, though they do not represent the majority of American Jewry, are the sort of people Netanyahu can feel at home with and trust to promote policies that are conducive to his right-wing political agenda, especially regarding Jerusalem and the future of the West Bank.
Thirdly, the two men share the same sentiments regarding the predominantly liberal media, which is by its very nature hostile to the likes of the two of them, both in terms of their personal conduct and their agendas.
Both have also discovered the marvels of social media, which enable them to bypass the bothersome traditional media.
Though in terms of lack of political correctness and factual accuracy Trump leaves Netanyahu way behind, it must certainly be a relief for Netanyahu to be free of the Democrats’ criticism of him on these grounds.
Last but not least, there is no doubt that Netanyahu feels much more comfortable with a white, opportunistic billionaire who made his money from real estate and gambling than with a liberal African American with a legal background attained at one of America’s Ivy League universities.
Last week Netanyahu expressed his envy of Trump’s ability to execute some 4,000 personal appointments of officials, without having to go through the process of tenders and selection committees, adding that in Israel many more officials ought to be appointed in this manner than is currently possible. Netanyahu tied this issue to Israel’s governability problems.
Of course, it isn’t just Trump who has the power to make all these appointments. This is a power vested in all American presidents, who are also able to appoint their cabinets as they may see fit. All this is part of the presidential system, together with its term limits and potential governability problems in the event that the president’s party does not control Congress (a problem Trump will not have, at least for the first two years of his presidency).
Though in parliamentary systems much greater emphasis is placed on a professional civil service and the principle of administrative continuity, in principle the prime minister and his ministers have the right to appoint a certain number of senior officials, and the prime minister has the right to appoint the ministers he wants, though in Israel he usually lacks the power to do so because he is dependent on coalition partners who impose their selection of ministers on him, and on the internal politics of his own party, which limits his ability to choose his preferred ministers even from there.
Part of Israel’s governability problems have to do with this reality, and I suspect that a greater number of political appointments to administrative positions by all the ministers – not only the prime minister – will only aggravate this problem, not to speak of the weakening of the position of politically neutral professional gatekeepers, whose job it is to ensure that the government functions within the boundaries of the law.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu is correct when he complains that the Israeli system is over bureaucratized.
Taking the construction sector as an example, there is no doubt that it takes much too long for buildings to be constructed from the moment plans are submitted for approval to the handing over of the keys to the purchasers.
But is that what is hampering the declared policy of lowering apartment prices? I would argue that the main problem here is not bureaucracy but policy. In the initial stage free market forces cannot be expected to do the job, no matter what sort of incentives are offered to the various players or how many bureaucratic shortcuts are initialized. The problem is that too many actors are simply not interested in the prices of apartments going down, and nothing short of direct government intervention for a certain period will release the bottleneck. In this case it is not bureaucracy as such that prevents results, but the nature of the tasks assigned to the bureaucrats.
Another example. Some time back I lauded Netanyahu for his creative plan for solving the problem of prayers at the Western Wall. For the sake of the unity of the Jewish People as a whole (not only Orthodox Jews) he sought to allocate and develop the southern section of the Wall so that non-Orthodox Jews would be able to pray there in accordance with their own principles and traditions. Did professional bureaucrats stop him from implementing his policy? No.
It was his own weakness vis-à-vis the more extreme sections of the Orthodox establishment that stopped him, even though if a free vote were to be held in the Knesset, Netanyahu’s plan would enjoy a clear majority.
Though many of Israel’s governability problems result from its government system, in the final reckoning if Netanyahu were less concerned with his own political survival and more with getting things done, without trying to bypass the checks and balances that have been carefully built into the system, his governability problems would be reduced.
As to Trump, once he assumes office next month, at least on the American front Netanyahu’s life will undoubtedly become much simpler.