US is no model of democracy for Israel

There is a tendency to ignore the flaws and inequalities in American society and to prefer the US over Europe.

December 19, 2016 20:29
4 minute read.
Israeli elections

An Israeli flag is seen in the background as a man casts his ballot for the parliamentary election. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The United States is more admired than any other country by both politicians and ordinary citizens in Israel. The American way of life, the American Dream, attract many Israelis. But its political institutions, capitalism and consumerism influence and are copied by Israel, too. There is a tendency to ignore the flaws and inequalities in American society and to prefer the US over Europe. This was obvious in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory in the American presidential elections.

President Reuven Rivlin, when congratulating Trump, said that the American people “had once again showed the world [the US] is the greatest democracy.” In Europe, political leaders also congratulated him, but hardly anyone did it without apprehension for the future. Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was the only one who claimed Trump’s election was a proof that “democracy is still alive.”

The US is no doubt a democracy, but it can hardly serve as a model for other countries.

The candidate who lost the popular vote by perhaps three million votes will become president thanks to an outdated Electoral College system and dysfunctional voting rules that even differ by county and result in low voter turnout and disenfranchisement of many voters. We still remember the scandal in Florida in the 2000 presidential elections when the Supreme Court stopped a recount of the votes in the state.

It is even worse than that. Trump won because he appealed to fear and prejudice, sparking racism and antisemitism. This did not seem to concern the Israeli government despite its claim that it fights antisemitism abroad.

More important for the Israeli government was Trump’s alleged support for its right-wing polices and continued settlement building in occupied territories. According to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s congratulation call to Trump, the US has no better ally than Israel. He also thinks that Israel has no better ally than the US under its new president.

Netanyahu’s admiration for the US includes also its “spoils system” whereby the winning party takes all after elections and gives government jobs to its supporters. Inspired by Trump, he said recently, according to news reports, that “we need a few hundred appointments that do not require a tender... we need to be able to govern.” A special panel will apparently be established to propose changes in how senior government posts are filled.

True, there is a rotation of senior civil servants after changes in government following elections not only in the US. The question is how much and at what levels. It is no problem if a new minister brings a few political advisers whom he can trust – but what if civil servants at lower management levels, e.g.

heads of units, are replaced? If the winner in the US appoints 4,000 people, a new government in Israel should only appoint about 100.

Judging by the numbers, Netanyahu seems to have in mind not only the most senior officials in the public administration, those that work closely with the ministers in a relationship of trust and share their political opinions. If we are talking about “hundreds” of appointments, civil servants at lower levels, who should be appointed in open tenders based on merit and experience, will also be affected. This would result in an unreasonable turnover of staff after each change of power in Israel.

In recent years the civil service in most countries has been influenced by new public management models and the differences between private and public sector employment are becoming diluted. Civil service legislation varies by country and there is no single model for the service. Does this mean that the traditional values which civil service legislation tries to embody have become outdated? Civil servants work for the public good and not for a private company or specific political party in power. The opposite leads to corruption.

They should be impartial and objective in policy making and implementation.

Recruitment should be open and merit-based with clear rules for promotion, performance appraisal and dismissal. The use of temporary contracts, where normal recruitment procedures are not followed, should be avoided.

Only in countries with widespread corruption is it common that ministers take the final decision when it comes to the selection or dismissal of civil servants. We do not want Israel to become a state captured by corruption.

Unfortunately Israel is not spared illegal political appointments, judging from the audit reports of the State Comptroller. If ministries in the future are allowed to tailor-make recruitment notices or appoint civil servants without tenders – and with only slight overview by the Civil Service Commission – politicization will become more common and even legalized.

Politicization of the civil service is not only a feature that runs against merit-based recruitment. It also undermines the stability of the civil service and its capacity to function and implement policies. With frequent changes in the composition of coalition governments it becomes a matter of governability.

Israel will not be better “governed” if coalition partners will have more discretion in appointing supporters and political cronies in their fiefdoms.

The main governability problem in Israel, according to Rubinstein & Wolfson, “Absence of government” (2012), is not staffing but the lack of coordination between the ministries and the “hijacking” of the country by minority parties who impose their views on the majority of the population. Since the book was written the situation has become even worse.

The current Israeli government is doing everything in its power to pass controversial laws in Knesset at the expense of minorities and in violation of fundamental rights. Such laws face the risk of being canceled by the Supreme Court of Justice – unless the court also becomes politicized. The politicization of the public administration fits into the current government’s campaign to cement its rule and transform Israel to an illiberal democracy.

The writer is a former official at the European Commission.

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