US businessman pushes for electoral reform

Isaac Parviz Nazarian tries to promote a more representative democracy here.

Isaac Parviz Nazarian 88 (photo credit: )
Isaac Parviz Nazarian 88
(photo credit: )
Long before the recent Knesset elections intensified the outcries for electoral reform, Isaac Parviz Nazarian, through his Citizens Empowerment Center, was trying to promote a more representative democracy here. A wealthy Iranian-born American-Israeli businessman, Nazarian, 80, understood long ago that political stability is good for business, attracts investment and empowers private citizens. For those reasons, he has invested tens of millions of shekels to launch the Tel Aviv-based center, which he hopes will be his legacy to the State of Israel. The center, which was founded in 2003, does not pretend to have a solution for fixing Israel's government, but provides a platform for research and encourages key leaders to take action. The center helped spur the establishment of the Commission for the Examination of the Structure of Government, headed by Hebrew University president Prof. Menachem Megidor. The commission, whose 73 members were split into seven subcommittees, toiled for 15 months to examine the range of electoral systems and governmental structures. The commission published its findings in January 2007, recommending a semi-regional electoral framework, with 60 nationally elected MKs and 60 locally elected MKs from 17 districts. The commission also recommended raising the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 2.5%, still low compared to the 4% and 5% minimums in Sweden and Germany, respectively. These moves, according to the center, would create stronger voting blocs in the Knesset, and diminish the influence of sectoral parties that destabilize the government by "extorting" the ruling party in exchange for support. Also included in the commission's recommendation was the institution of two-year budgets to assist in the execution of the government's long-term projects. Nazarian arrived in Israel for the first time in 1949 to fight in the War of Independence, and was wounded by a mine. He spent the subsequent 30 years establishing commercial enterprises in the construction equipment, electronics and sheet metal industries both here and in Iran, where he returned to live in 1956. Following the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, Nazarian, his wife, three daughters, and one son sought refuge in the Jewish state, but it soon became clear to him that he could not realize his commercial aspirations in the Israeli economy of that time. He thus uprooted his family again, this time to Los Angeles, where the import businesses he started flourished. As far as Nazarian is concerned, the turning point in his personal and professional life occurred about a year and a half after resettling in America, when he received his US citizenship. "All of a sudden, members of Congress from my region needed my support and were calling me personally to convince me. The same happened with the candidates for mayor and for district judge," he told The Jerusalem Post last week, in an interview held at the Knesset. "This new reality was not familiar to me, not as an Iranian, where I was not in political life at all, and not as an Israeli, where I didn't like what I saw, and stayed away from it. It changed my life," Nazarian said. "As an American citizen, I have influence and real say. It gave me access and improved my ability to execute my social, communal and business plans. I thought, if it was good for Americans, why wouldn't the people of Israel enjoy the same power? "Here in Israel, people's votes don't count anymore once the elections are over. It is absurd that in an advanced, hi-tech country, people cannot exercise fully their democratic rights and obligations," he continued. Nazarian; his eldest daughter Dora Kadisha, a prominent philanthropist who sits on the board of the center; Yuval Lipkin, director of the center and the Nazarian family's representative in Israel, and many others have lobbied tirelessly to promote the center's agenda. Though based in Los Angeles, both Kadisha and her father come to Israel frequently throughout the year to meet with MKs and rally support for their initiatives. Kadisha stressed the apolitical character of the Citizens Empowerment Center, and emphasized that the center's primary concern is the instability that results when the government is replaced on average every two years and ministers change even more frequently. This makes it difficult for the government to initiate and carry out long-term programs. "Israel's governments cannot really function during this average of two years they are in power because they are busy surviving. Who can lead economic, educational and cultural plans when they are not sure if they will still be in power tomorrow?" Kadisha asked. "We [the Citizens Empowerment Center] don't have a political preference. The only thing that we care about is stability, and we would like to see the Israeli government in power for full four year term," she said.