Governance: Broken but fixable

The fundamental ailment – overly frequent elections and frail coalitions.

Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute, hands the 2014 Israel Democracy Index to President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s residence in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute, hands the 2014 Israel Democracy Index to President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s residence in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
“IF VOTING made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it,” Mark Twain once quipped about democracy. He would have found Israel amusing. Here, they make us vote often – much too often.
In the 13 years since 2002, there have been five national elections that produced five new Knessets. Compare this with the three decades from 1951 through 1981, when national elections were held like clockwork only once every four years.
Israel’s political leaders of all stripes love to brag that Israel is the only democracy in the Mideast. But, lately, the coalition government is struggling to pass a budget with an unmanageable Knesset majority of only one. Democracy seems increasingly like a delicious fattening sugary desert − too much of a good thing, as I noted earlier in The Jerusalem Report (“Truncated democracy,” January 12).
“Urgent” issues, such as whether to fund leftist theater groups, crowd out important ones, such as declining economic growth (only 0.3 percent annual GDP growth in the second quarter of this year), due to falling exports and investment; and a slumping high-tech industry, which grew only 4 percent last year, with high-tech employment stagnant since 2011.
If elections are imminent, and in Israel they always seem to be, politicians will focus on policies that yield immediate benefits to help them in primaries and at the ballot box, and generate donations, rather than on what is best for citizens in the long run. The vast army of lobbyists roaming the Knesset is a troubling symptom.
The result of excess democracy has been serious erosion in public trust. A public opinion survey, the Israel Democracy Index, reveals that almost as many Israelis (one in four) believe Israel is too democratic, or much too democratic, than believe it is not democratic enough. The same survey reveals people trust the Knesset, government and political parties less than the IDF and the Supreme Court ‒ this, at a time when the right-wing coalition has been attacking the court, specifically for its ruling on the civil rights of African migrants.
The machinery of governance is badly broken and has been for years. Moreover, there is a fundamental problem. The democracy machine itself has to make the repairs. Any change in the system must be approved by the Cabinet and Knesset.
But how can this happen if the machine crucial for any solution is broken? Can a broken machine fix itself? The answer, according to Yohanan Plesner, is yes! Plesner is President of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), an independent, non-partisan “think-and-do tank” that seeks to strengthen Israeli democracy. Together with Prof. Gideon Rahat, a Hebrew University political scientist, Plesner, a former Knesset member for the Kadima party, has written a terse proposal, “Reforming Israel’s Political System.”
The goal, say the authors, is “to improve governance and long-term stability.” The means? “Reduce party fragmentation by forming two large political blocs.” The method? “Make some changes in the way governments are formed and dissolved.”
“The current ruling party [Likud] has a mere quarter of the seats in the Knesset [30 MKs],” say the authors. “The two largest parties combined hold fewer than half the seats in the Knesset. Under such conditions, effective governance becomes impossible, regardless of who is in power. The acute political vulnerability of every one of the last five prime ministers has had profoundly damaging effects on policymaking on everything from the economy to national security.”
What, then, is their proposed solution? First, “after a general election, the head of the largest Knesset faction will become the prime minister automatically.” Today, there is much coalition horse-trading, as the president consults with Knesset Members regarding their choice for the top job. This will encourage small parties from the center to unite with the big ones.
Second, “the new government formed by the prime minister will no longer require confirmation by a parliamentary vote of investiture.”
This will end coalition blackmail by smaller parties demanding billions in public money.
Third, “the continued tenure of an incumbent government will not depend on Knesset approval of the state budget.” Today, the government is held hostage by Knesset Members because, if the budget is not passed in time, new elections must be called by law. Again, billions of shekels are paid out to ensure a Knesset majority.
I questioned Plesner about the proposed plan, which is beautifully simple.
The Jerusalem Report: Will Knesset members vote for reforms that reduce their powers?
Plesner: “There is an absolute majority in the current Knesset in favor of political reform, along the lines we have proposed, or similar to them. The challenge will be to turn this majority into an active majority.
The chances of passing any such reform under the current coalition are not high, but nonetheless, it could happen if one of the centrist parties joins the coalition.
In this case, a change in the political system must be part of the coalition agreement and agenda of the broad unity government.
Another scenario could be that early elections are called. Electoral reform could be a good platform for implementing the wishes of the majority that supports such reform.”
“How can democratic government become less focused on the short-term? European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said: ‘Elected officials know what they should do, but they don’t know how to do it and be re-elected.’” Plesner: “The observation [of Juncker] is very accurate; we need to create incentives for ministers and Knesset Members to act with long-term perspective. Clearly, part of the changes needed in political activity will be felt decades hence; that will be hard to achieve in the current political system without fundamental change in the political culture and without a significant push from senior government officials.
“Through the changes we at IDI are proposing, we can lengthen the time perspective of cabinet ministers, who at present are certain only of serving for a single budget, and thus avoid focusing on small issues whose fruits can be plucked very quickly.
We can lengthen the perspective at least to a four-year term.
“In this situation, serving the public interest will demand deep thought on major changes whose impact will be felt toward the end of the four-year term.
This will diminish significantly the pressure from, and dependence on, interest groups, at least during the first years of a cabinet, and will improve the chances that elected representatives will act more responsibly.
“Today, many of our Knesset Members are forced to make do with declarations, words, and avoid investing their time and influence in issues that take a long time or that risk damaging their image in the short run.”
Plesner’s IDI has data that reveal just how broken Israeli governance is. In Israel, it takes forever to form a coalition government.
The Knesset took nearly five months between dissolution of the Knesset and the newly formed Knesset’s approval of a new government. In Denmark, it takes less than a month.
How long do finance ministers serve? Building and managing the government budget are tough jobs that take much time for a minister to learn. Since 1996, Israeli finance ministers have served on average for only 674 days, less than two years, compared with 4.9 years in Britain. It wasn’t always thus. Mapai politician Pinhas Sapir was finance minister for a decade.
Israel’s largest political party has less than half the number of MKs in the coalition government (true of all coalition governments since 2006), while in Japan, Denmark, Australia and the UK, the largest party has between 85 and 100 percent of the members of the government.
There has been a great deal of tinkering with Israel’s democratic system. In the elections of 1996, 1999 and 2001, citizens cast two ballots, one for prime minister and one for a political party’s list. This terrible idea was abandoned in 2002 and IDI takes some credit for shifting back to a single ballot.
The threshold of votes needed for a political party to enter the Knesset, only 1 percent until 1988, has been raised to 3.25 percent.
As a result, there are “only” 10 parties represented in the 20th Knesset, compared with 12 in the 19th.
And, admittedly, in some ways democracy has improved. The 20th Knesset has 40 new members (one in every three), and 29 are women, up from only 21 in the 18th Knesset. The 20th Knesset has 17 Arab members, up from a dozen in the previous Knesset. Voter turnout in the last election was a healthy 72.4 percent. But the fundamental ailment, overly frequent elections and frail coalitions, persists.
Plesner is himself proof of the malady he seeks to cure. Born in London, son of a Danish architect and an Israeli professor of Media and Journalism, the family made aliya when he was a baby. He served as an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit. In 2007, he became a Knesset Member for the Kadima party and in 2012 chaired a committee for revising IDF conscription of the ultra-Orthodox.
The committee’s recommendations included criminal charges, fines and loss of benefits for draft dodgers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shelved them. Plesner lost his Knesset seat in the 2013 elections, one of many promising young legislators dumped by a flawed system.
The British playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote that democracy is a device that ensures we will be governed no better than we deserve. Israel deserves better governance, better democracy. And the way to make this happen is clear and simple.
Our government and Knesset Members must give this problem top priority.
The writer is senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and blogs at