Every problem, however difficult, has a creative solution.
This is an axiom I taught MBA students for years in my course on innovation.
Is this naïve? Of course. Indeed, there are unsolvable problems. But if you give up from the outset, you are doomed. Better to assume there is a solution, in order to energize the creative juices.
And by the way, let us avoid the euphemism “challenge.” Call a spade a spade. Yes, a problem is a problem. If you assume there is a solution, only then does it become a challenge to find one.
Now, take a really hard problem – Israel’s current political plonter (Yiddish for “muddle,” “tangle,” “imbroglio”). Israelis are split 50-50 between Left and Right. In fact, in the last national election, the Right won only 48% of the total votes but still formed the government because two Left parties failed to make the 3.25% minimum threshold for Knesset representation.
How deeply divided is Israeli society? A recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 80% of left-wing Israelis, 62% of centrists, and only 29% of right-wingers trust the Supreme Court. Moreover, 55.6% of Israelis support the court having the ability to strike down laws passed by the Knesset if they contradict principles of democracy. While 85% “trust the IDF,” only 8.5% “trust political parties.”
Political wrangling has caused us to lose all trust in the democratic system. And not for the first time.
Yohanan Plessner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute and former Knesset member, recently sought to explain the plonter to foreigners in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Plessner observed: “Our country has no constitution, no bill of rights, no federal distribution of power, no presidential veto, and only a single house of parliament…A simple majority in the Knesset can—and often does—alter the foundations of our democratic regime.”
“Our country has no constitution, no bill of rights, no federal distribution of power, no presidential veto, and only a single house of parliament…A simple majority in the Knesset can—and often does—alter the foundations of our democratic regime.”Yohanan Plessner
Today, following a national election, the fifth in four years, the four right-wing parties gained a 64-seat Knesset majority. That slim majority led by Prime Minister Netanyahu is imposing what many see as anti-democratic laws, strangling the essential judicial constraint on the legislature.
Can a democratically elected government use its power to attack, weaken, or even destroy democracy? This has happened in the US, under Trump; in Hungary; and, to some extent, in Poland. The latter two countries’ leaders have greatly weakened the independent powers of the judiciary – as Israel’s Justice Minister Yariv Levin aspires to do.
The leftist daily Haaretz proclaims: Democracy does not end with elections. Some 130,000 demonstrators agreed and packed the Kaplan St. intersection on the evening of Saturday January 21 to protest the Levin proposal. Medical doctors too have protested, and so have hi-tech workers.
Albert Einstein observed once, “Given one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding the solution.”
“Given one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding the solution.”Albert Einstein
What, then, is the root of Israel’s political plonter that generated five elections in four years – the latest, last November 1?
I spoke with a number of experts, who offered several pragmatic swords to cut the tangled Gordian knot. What emerged is a three-step “coffee-shop” solution: small, medium and large.
- Opposition leader Yair Lapid has proposed the formation of a presidential committee “to offer a balanced and reasonable recommendation” for improving the judicial system – one that would balance the legislative and judicial branches.
- President Herzog unveiled his own multi-year plan to heal political rifts, along with establishment of a presidential center aimed at “fostering a sense of belonging among the various communities of Israel.”
- Four senior S. Neaman Institute scholars sought to find “common ground” that unites Israelis rather than focus on what divides us. In their report, “Common Ground: Agreed Road Map for Long-term National Paradigms,” they found “virtual unanimity that the tenets of the Megilat Ha’Atzmaut (Declaration of Independence) should serve as the organizing principles for the future of the country.”
In extensive interviews among Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, young and old, they found extensive agreement on the core values embodied in this document, read by David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948.
Among those core values: The Law of Return, Jewish democratic state, equality, cultural diversity, moral and just allocation of resources, striving for non-partisan common good, solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and integration in the Mideast.
These values are the “glue” that unites us. They show us a cohesive road forward.
- There are currently nine Arab MKs. If the percentage of Israeli Arabs who voted equaled that of Israeli Jews, they would have 20-24 MKs. Had they voted thus on November 1, there would be no extremist right-wing government. Democracy requires that Israeli Arabs should feel empowered to vote.
- Direct election of the prime minister: I spoke with my old friend Arie Ruttenberg, former strategic adviser to the late prime ministers Begin and Rabin. He urges a return to the direct election of the prime minister, whereby voters cast two ballots: one for prime minister, and the other for a political party.
The current system, Ruttenberg noted, gives enormous power to minor parties. Every extreme demand by Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, with seven MKs, becomes a make-or-break ultimatum for the coalition.
Moreover, on November 22, after uniting solely for the elections, his party split again into three pieces: Religious Zionist Party; Noam (Avi Maoz); and Otzma Yehudit (Itamar Ben-Gvir). Each of these splinter parties, too, makes fanatical take-it-or-else demands. Tyranny of the extreme homophobic Right must not endure or prevail.
How would direct election of the prime minister work? New elections are called – solely to choose a prime minister. The new PM forms a government that need not be approved by the Knesset. Ideally – the cabinet ministers chosen are highly competent professionals, not necessarily politicians. (I recall a press conference at the height of the COVID crisis given by then-health minister Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, a Ger Hassid, member of the United Torah Judaism party, wearing a bear fur shtreimel, since it was just after Purim, when he had zero knowledge of anything remotely related to healthcare. Inspires confidence, no?). Once formed, no new government may be formed during the current Knesset term. Minor, extremist parties can no longer hold the prime minister hostage. There is no alternative candidate for prime minister waiting to swoop in and depose the candidate given the initial mandate.
True, we tried this in the past. In the spring of 1990, in the words of Emanuele Ottolenghi, an expert at a Washington think tank, “there was an unprecedented public orgy of floor-crossing and unseemly bargaining … known as the ‘stinking maneuver.’ This led Israelis to change their Basic Law to require that a separate popular election of the prime minister be held.”
Direct election of the prime minister was used three times – in 1996, 1999 and February 2001, when Ariel Sharon (Likud) defeated Ehud Barak (Labor). Voters placed two ballots into the ballot box – one for prime minister, and one for a political party. But this encouraged ticket-splitting.
“Many voters opted for smaller parties, leaving the two big parties with less bargaining power than ever and increasing the fragmentation that ultimately caused the system’s undoing,” Ottolenghi notes. And at the time, the threshold for MK election was only 1.5%. In the 1999 elections, for instance, the two large parties got only 45 MKs out of 120.
Times have changed. Extreme fragmentation has brought us debacles like the Noam party. It is time to try direct election again. With, say, a 5% threshold, as exists in Germany, the result will be different. It will bring normality, stability and sanity to our democracy.
Is this a fanciful idea? Not at all. In April 2021, then-prime minister Netanyahu tried to persuade Naftali Bennett to support direct PM elections. Bennett refused.
After Smotrich flayed Netanyahu alive, our perennial long-serving PM will surely love to avoid more such episodes. Moreover, he has the support of Shas. In 2001, Shas sought to postpone cancellation of direct PM elections and in March 2001 voted against canceling it, but in a losing cause.
Big hairy pie-in-the-sky fixes
Direct election of the prime minister is a short-term fix. More drastic fixes, Ruttenberg believes, must await a prolonged crisis – demonstrations, road closings, police violence, and a clear understanding that this situation cannot continue.
A long-term fix would be to draft a constitution.
Imagine a soccer game between MKs of the coalition vs. the opposition. Netanyahu coaches the coalition team. Lapid coaches the opposition.
Opposition MK striker Hamad Amar (Yisrael Beytenu) grabs the ball in his hands and tosses it into the goal.
His team is jubilant. The coalition team protests. Netanyahu screams at the referee: “Hand ball! We get a penalty kick!”
The referee shrugs. “Hey. There are no rules here. The goal stands.”
This imaginary game is impossible. There are rules in soccer. One of them forbids handling the ball. How can you play soccer without rules?
But what about Israel’s democracy? What if the coalition scraps a whole slew of laws that protect democracy? Why? Because they can.
And what if, in four years, in 2027, the opposition comes to power and restores all the laws the coalition scrapped?
You cannot play soccer without clear rules. Nor can you run a stable democracy without rules.
Only six countries lack a written constitution: Britain, Israel, Libya, New Zealand, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Britain, bedrock of democracy, has common law built up over hundreds of years. New Zealand’s constitution is also based on common law.
Does Israel want to be in the company of chaotic undemocratic Libya and autocratic Oman and Saudi Arabia? Netanyahu repeatedly says that Israel is the only Mideast democracy. That may no longer be true if his coalition government gets its way.
Let us call a constitutional conference at long last to write a constitution for Israel, establishing the democratic rules of the game once and for all. This is not a pipe dream. There is precedent. It is time to fulfill Ben-Gurion’s wish.
Way back in May 1948, David Ben-Gurion envisioned that within four months, a constituent assembly would be elected and would write a constitution. Indeed, this was written into the Declaration of Independence.
But it never happened. The day after the state was declared, Arab armies invaded, and the War of Independence began. Survival became the only priority.
The First Knesset was dissolved before its time. The Knessets that followed enacted Basic Laws – 11 in all, from 1958 through 1992. They deal with, among others, human dignity and liberty, and freedom of occupation. Chief justice Aharon Barak stated in 1995 that the Basic Laws have “supremacy over ordinary legislation.” Levin’s judicial reform seeks to reverse that ruling.
In May 2003, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset, chaired by Likud MK Michael Eitan, initiated a Broad Consensus Project – to write a constitution for Israel. One of its aims: to prevent a tyranny of the majority and to protect basic human rights and collective rights of minority groups.
A website was created. But opponents, including the religious parties, scuttled the worthy project.
“I fought to change the method of governance and to create a situation where a basic law for human rights would be accepted.”Uriel Reichman
Uriel Reichman, too, fought for years for a constitution. Founder of Reichman University, he notes that “I fought to change the method of governance and to create a situation where a basic law for human rights would be accepted.” But for naught.
Can a divided divisive Israel actually reach consensus on a constitution – on the rules of the democratic game? We can learn from the United States.
In 1789, a no-less-divided America wrangled for months over its constitution, and finally, exhausted, reached an enlightened compromise – a constitution that for two centuries has served as a beacon of light in times of darkness (see below).
Crises can be opportunities. Israel is currently in crisis. The road ahead could easily follow that of Peru, where violent demonstrations have almost shut down the economy, after the elected president was impeached and deposed by the Congress.
According to former Bank of Israel governor Karnit Flug, the proposed judicial reform will lower Israel’s credit rating, leading to lower incomes and a reduced standard of living, due to its destabilizing effect on the Israeli economy.
Sanity will prevail, hopefully, before Israel becomes Peru. The solutions to the plonter are there – small, medium, large.
All we need are leaders with vision, intelligence and good will to implement them.
Are there such? We will soon find out. ■
Learning from US history
Israel, a young country, is still working out the rules under which its democracy will function. This was the case, too, with Revolutionary America. We can learn much from it.
In 1776, the US was too busy fighting the British for its independence to write a constitution. Only 11 years later, on May 25, 1787, did a convention convene in Philadelphia.
A draft document existed, prepared by James Madison. There was a fierce prolonged stalemate that dragged on through half the summer, over how the states would be represented in Congress. Small states battled large states. Only on June 30 did a compromise emerge, proposed by Connecticut. There would be representation proportional to population in the House (favoring the big states), and one senator per state in the Senate (favoring the small states).
The stalemate deepened. Some delegates left. George Washington wrote that the crisis was so bad, he despaired of seeing a favorable outcome. The delegates fought bitterly for two more weeks.
Finally, on July 16, they reached agreement, probably because of exhaustion. Amended 27 times, the US Constitution has proven for over two centuries to comprise flexible, badly needed rules of the game for a divided, fragmented society.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com.