Politics: Saving Israeli democracy from itself

With several proposals for electoral reform, expert Richard Katz emphasizes the need for a change.

ballots 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ballots 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Men would "rather bear those evils we have than fly to others that we know not of." When Shakespeare wrote those words in Hamlet, he was referring to death. When Johns Hopkins University political science professor Richard Katz quoted that line in a meeting with Kadima legislators at the Knesset on Wednesday, he was referring to something nearly as perilous: attempts to reform the electoral system and save Israeli democracy. Katz, who is one of the world's foremost experts on electoral reform, came to Israel this week as a guest of the Citizens' Empowerment Center in Israel and the Presidential Commission for the Examination of the Governmental Structure it oversees. He met with people behind the multiple efforts taking place to reform the Israeli governmental system, emphasizing the necessity of their task and the dangers of making a fateful mistake. Speaking as an outsider looking in, Katz described two fundamental dilemmas that Israel hasn't managed to solve in 60 years: How to bring about peace and security in a Middle East that is mostly Arab, and the question of whether Israel is a state for the Jewish religion, the Jewish people or its citizens. He said the failure to answer these questions has prevented Israel from achieving the stability necessary to govern. Katz outlined a series of problem with the Israeli system of government - from the surplus of parties, to the disempowerment of minorities, to the inability of ordinary citizens to have real impact on who represents them in the Knesset. Several politicians, academics, organizations and commissions have been working separately in recent months to solve these problems once and for all. "I see a lot of proposals on the table," Katz said in an interview at the Knesset. "My fear is that, as has often been the case with electoral reforms in other countries, whatever reforms are selected won't work as expected, and there is a danger that they will even make matters worse." Katz said the problem with electoral reforms is that they have to be run by politicians whose personal interests are indistinguishable from their definition of the national interest. He said that for electoral reforms to be effective and make a difference, some parties will inevitably be better off, and some will be worse off than they are now. "There are dangers in changing the rules of the game by a simple majority of the beneficiaries of the changes," Katz said. "To make it work well, you need a substantial majority," something there rarely is in Israel for anything, let alone something so controversial, with such ramifications on the country's future. THAT'S WHY there was such an outcry in the Knesset when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced to Kadima's governing council last month that he had reached a deal with the heads of Israel Beiteinu and the Pensioners Party on an electoral reform package that he vowed to pass in the Knesset within a matter of weeks. "It's not a messianic dream, but a realistic opportunity to bring the necessary stability to the Israeli government," Olmert said with great fanfare. MKs were concerned Olmert would seek a razor-thin majority to pass sweeping electoral reforms that would add tremendous power to the prime minister at the expense of the parliament and the public. Announcing that a deal had been reached undermined efforts that have been going on behind the scenes for months to achieve a consensus among many parties for electoral reforms that they all could swallow. A group of faction heads and other MKs interested in electoral reform have met five times, in a process they call "the round table." The rules at the meetings are that politics are left at the door, and that every participant must listen to every other, in an effort to reach common ground. The MKs promised not to present individual electoral reform bills on their own until they completed their work. So far, they have assembled a chart outlining the opinions of many groups of MKs on more than 20 criteria for electoral reforms. They are planning to work on the joint legislation this month, hold an academic conference next month and bring their proposal to a preliminary reading in the Knesset plenum in March. Their goal is to pass the proposal into law within a year, so that the next election would be held under the new system. "We want to save Israel from instability and ensure that there will be fairness for the Israeli electorate," said Israel Beiteinu faction head Estherina Tartman, who acts as the secretary for the group. The MKs who have submitted proposals for reforms include Knesset Law Committee chairman Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima), Avishay Braverman (Labor) and Dan Naveh (Likud). The National Religious Party also recently formed a committee to decide its opinion on electoral reforms. Likud faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar recently convened representatives from 10 of the 12 factions, purposely excluding Kadima and Israel Beiteinu. They decided to meet again next week to work on a proposal that would emphasize strengthening the parliament out of fear that Olmert would pass a proposal that would remove powers from the Knesset. Olmert's plan would give the prime minister veto power on legislation and enable him to disperse the Knesset. Overthrowing him would require a minimum of 66 MKs for a no-confidence motion, and 73 to disperse the Knesset without his approval, both of which currently need only 61 MKs. The prime minister would not need the Knesset's approval for his cabinet, which would be limited to 18 ministers, one fourth of whom would be experts in their fields who did not run for Knesset. By contrast, other proposals would strengthen the Knesset at the expense of the government by instituting parliamentary hearings for major appointments and making ministers accountable to Knesset committees. Ben-Sasson, who negotiated Olmert's plan with Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman and Pensioners' Party chairman Rafi Eitan, said the plan was a work in progress that succeeded in bridging the gap between Lieberman's calls for a presidential system of government and more moderate proposals. He said the goals of all the parties should be to find the right balance between making the government more stable, maximizing the Knesset's functionality and strengthening accountability to voters. "I don't think Israeli democracy is endangered now, but we must fine-tune and correct mistakes made through the patchwork of legislation over the past two generations by instituting proper checks and balances," Ben-Sasson said. "The lack of stability creates short-term tactical thinking. The government needs a sense of security to know that it can implement what it plans. The lack of trust in our leaders and their inability to get things done could endanger Israel democracy in the future." Ben-Sasson, who as law committee chairman will have a big impact on whatever proposal ultimately passes, also favors such original ideas as giving citizens a financial incentive to vote, and expanding the Knesset to 180 MKs. Meretz leader Yossi Beilin, who was behind the unsuccessful effort to change the electoral system a decade ago by instituting direct elections for prime minister, cautioned against making too many changes that might be regretted later. He opposes raising the electoral threshold for parties to enter the Knesset. He favors allowing voters to decide their party's list of MKs on election day, but he believes the people in power now would have come to power under any system of government. "There is this trend now that we have to completely overhaul the system," Beilin said. "I don't think that's true. I think that all we need are a few small changes." Believing that electoral reforms should be initiated by the nation's top academic minds and not by politicians, President Moshe Katsav started the Presidential Commission for the Examination of the Governmental Structure, a forum of the country's leading political scientists chaired by Hebrew University President Menahem Magidor. The commission has been meeting regularly for a year and is set to finalize its draft recommendations on Friday in Tel Aviv. Unlike the reforms favored by the politicians that shun regional elections, the presidential commission is expected to decide on instituting regional voting for either half or all of the Knesset in 17 constituencies. It will also add an element of preferential voting that will allow people to vote against their party's recommended candidates. To increase the government's effectiveness, the commission calls for increasing the professional services available to it by bolstering the national security council and establishing a similar socioeconomic council. The commission would limit the number of ministers to 15, but they would have more time to work because they would quit the Knesset according to the so-called "Norwegian law" that would allow them to return to their parliament seat if they resigned from the cabinet. This would also ensure that there would be 120 working legislators who do not serve in the government. The commission's strength of lacking active politicians is also its weakness, because its members lack the power to get their recommendations implemented. "These reforms are an interrelated package, said Tel Aviv-Jaffa Academic College School of Government head Naomi Chazan, who is a member of the committee. "They have to be accepted and approved together or it would create imbalances. The reforms would maintain the strength of the representational and participatory nature of our system, while correcting the weaknesses with careful incremental reforms." Ironically, the commission appointed by the president is the most opposed to adopting a presidential system of government - like that of the United States. Many Israelis envy the American system, because unlike in Israel - where some ministries have had seven ministers in a decade - most American cabinet secretaries serve at least four years. Katz cautioned the commission against viewing the American system as a role model for Israel. He said what works in the US cannot work in Israel, because the Jewish state lacks America's national resources, vast territory and friendly neighbors. "There is a grave danger that if they are run by a president, Israelis would get either the same instability they have now, or a personal strongman who, with short-term popular approval, could override the demands of the people," Katz said. When it comes to reforming Israel's system of government, Katz advises Israel to reform "those evils we have," rather than "fly to others that we know not of." Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report.