Remodeling Israeli politics

Political elites, structures and cultures are not meeting today's needs.

Political systems are in trouble everywhere, even in strong democracies such as the United State, Britain, France, Japan and Germany. The reason is clear: Political elites, structures and cultures are not meeting today's needs. They are inherently unable to cope with radically new challenges from globalization, demographic shifts and geo-strategic mutations, to growing income disparities, climatic changes and escalating terrorism. It's time to remodel politics worldwide, but especially in Israel, where the quality of our politics is tied to the very existence and core nature of our society. What is needed is pressure by informed elements in the public, including Jewish leaders outside Israel, to radically and effectively remodel the political system of Israel. Israel's achievement in standing up to Arab hostility, developing the country and absorbing waves of immigrants is nothing short of heroic. Yet fundamental failures demonstrate that we have become incapable of addressing existential issues. Israel's grand strategy toward the Palestinians has failed. We have no policy toward minorities. There's been a reckless neglect, until recently, of the demographic issue, and a glaring absence of a social policy to reduce income disparities. There's been no progress in developing a knowledge and learning based society. Most serious of all, we've failed to deepen the Jewish nature of Israel while maintaining its democratic character, and failed to anchor our relations with the Jewish people worldwide in a real partnership. ISRAELI POLITICS as presently constituted is incapable of coping with these fundamental issues. Weak coalitions depending on unstable parties have produced a rapid turnover in governments. Out of touch dogmatic stances have inhibited innovative policies appropriate to our changing circumstances. Most politicians lack an understanding of globalization, science, technology, economics, and the Jewish people; and of the rapid changes that have effected Israeli society. Judicial activism has exerted undue influence on the political system. Strategic staff working out of the offices of elected officials are conspicuously scarce. The very idea of a professional senior civil service is anathema to most politicians. Corruption is rampant. And, as other critics have noted, Israeli political culture shuns long-term thinking. WHAT IS to be done? A necessary first step is the deconstruction of politics as now constituted. In line with the rabbinic idea that it is sometimes necessary to break a pot in order to repair it, and with Joseph A. Schumper's "constructive destruction" concept, we need to accept that unless present institutions, structures and approaches are demolished there is no hope for fundamental remodeling. This is the right time. Taken together, near-revolutionary developments in the Labor and Likud parties, combined with changes in the Orthodox parties and the establishment of a new centrist party by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, satisfy a necessary condition for profound reconstruction of our politics. However, by themselves they do not ensure that any emerging new model will be a good one. For this, some conscious cultural and institutional redesign based on innovative thinking is required. Proposals for constitutional reform, however important, do not alone satisfy this need. Indeed, a formal constitution by itself does not solve anything and may be counterproductive if it freezes atrophied structures. Instead we must: • radically change the way we teach civics in schools to provide the next generation with a real understanding of major national issues and the nature of politics. • change the work patterns of the Knesset to achieve serious discussion of major policy issues, based on thoughtful position papers and analysis developed by government and Knesset professionals. • put responsibility for society's major value judgments where it belongs, with elected officials, and reduce judicial activism which allows politicians to avoid hard choices. • change the electoral system and move toward a presidential regime with due safeguards and checks and balances. • reform the machinery of government by building a professional senior civil service, and reduce the number of ministries. • develop a "Central Brain of Governance" for long-range, comprehensive and professional strategic planning. • encourage the entry of younger and better-qualified persons into politics. • set up a "National Issues College" something akin to the Aspen Institute's retreat for business, political and academic elites, or the National Defense College, to foster confidential, in-depth discussion on major issues. At least a third of the participants should be below the age of 35. • revise and strengthen shared formal and informal Jewish People forums. DECONSTRUCTING the current political system together with the work of the Commission for Examination of the Structure of the Government of Israel initiated by President Moshe Katsav, supported by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and organized by the Citizens' Empowerment Center, has already provides a basis for hope. But illusions are dangerous. Granted, today's political turmoil could somehow resolve itself satisfactorily. But absent remodeling, and with inertia, vested interests and - to be frank - a lack of understanding by most politicians of what is wrong with them might well, in the long term, leave matters even even more muddled than they are today. The writer is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and recipient of the 2005 Israel Prize for his work in public policy and strategic planning.