Israel is the envy of the world - opinion

From an address delivered this week at the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York City

 RON LAUDER, president of the World Jewish Congress, addresses the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York City this week.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
RON LAUDER, president of the World Jewish Congress, addresses the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York City this week.

From an address delivered this week at the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York City

I will now tell you that I had a beautiful speech prepared for this morning. It focused on the many outside challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people, including the need for a two-state solution, and a new Marshall Plan for the Middle East.

It was a great speech but last night, I threw it away. I threw it away because I realized there is one huge problem facing Israel that almost no one is really talking about. It’s like the elephant in the room. On one hand, it’s so obvious because everyone sees it, and on the other hand, it seems so complicated that no one wants to deal with it. Well, we all have to deal with it and that is what I want to talk about right now.

The political instability of Israel

There have been five elections in Israel in just three years. Whoever wins this next election, will win with 61 or 62 seats. That means there will be another election right around the corner, and some small faction will be able to hold the next government hostage, just like the last one. No country, no business, no organization, nothing can function properly with that kind of blackmail by any group. 

Israel – like the US and many other countries right now – is divided almost equally between the right and the left. But in the US, four congressmen cannot bring down the presidency, which is exactly what can happen in Israel. That means that one small political faction can topple a government in order to get something it wants.

 A voting box in the last Israeli election in 2015 (credit: REUTERS) A voting box in the last Israeli election in 2015 (credit: REUTERS)

That’s a recipe for disaster.

Some people – when they go to bed – need to count sheep to help them fall asleep. Today, an Israeli prime minister needs to count Knesset members: “59, 60, 61” and then count them again in the morning to know if he’s going to the office that day.

That is counter-productive, it strangles creativity, it wastes time, it just doesn’t work, and it hasn’t worked for the last four elections. It’s actually a testament to the indomitable spirit of Zionism, of Eretz Yisrael, and of the Jewish mind and spirit, that Israel works as well as it does.

ISRAEL HAS faced existential threats since the very first day of its existence. 

And Israel has survived threat after threat because of its incredible courage, its ingenuity, and its strong far-thinking leadership. Israel still has that courage; Israel’s ingenuity is the envy of the world.

But Israel’s government, especially its electoral system, is so dependent on small groups who can bring down the government. All recent Israeli prime ministers have been held hostage to this system.

I have had the opportunity to travel to more than 40 countries as president of the World Jewish Congress during the last decade. What I hear over and over is that leaders in these countries believe Israel does not have a stable government, and for too long, it did not even have a full-time foreign minister whom they could deal with. It’s probably the only country in the world that did not have a foreign minister

With the threats that Israel is facing, especially from Iran, it cannot afford to be seen as unstable right now. Most people around the world must scratch their heads every time the Israelis go back to the polls. They can’t figure out how any democracy can possibly work with that kind of constant upheaval.

Israel’s parliamentary system may have worked from 1948 through the 1950s, when the Labor Party dominated the country. It may have been somewhat workable during the late 1970s when Likud won for the first time. But that was almost 50 years ago.

Israel’s future cannot be determined by one small political faction that holds the rest of the country hostage for its own narrow-minded benefit. Do you realize that in today’s current 120-member Knesset, there are 22 different political parties? The US has two main parties. France has two main parties. Great Britain has two main parties. Israel – 22!

Remember the famous definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?

We must reform Israel's electoral system

I CAN’T tell you what the answer is, but I know that what is in place now does not work. This has to change and here is a suggestion. I know the presidency in Israel is basically a ceremonial position, but today, I call on President Isaac Herzog to save his country and be the impetus to push the Knesset to form a bipartisan commission with people knowledgeable in democracy, elections and government.

He should be entrusted to create and guide it in the formation of a new electoral system that would finally pull Israel out of this mess. This commission should look at other systems – the US, the French Republic and the British parliamentary system.

As I mentioned, the US right now is also equally divided politically, but once a president is elected in America, he cannot be removed when five or 10 members of Congress might want something for their district.

What would happen if an Israeli prime minister were elected directly by the people with a solid four-year term?

He or she would have the ability to appoint ministers based on their expertise and knowledge of their ministries, not on how many seats they bring to the table. Can you imagine a transportation minister who actually knows something about trains, bridges and highways? A finance minister who knows economics? A foreign minister who has served in embassies around the world? This would guarantee stability.

I know the original system created in 1948 was modeled somewhat on the British system. Last week, we all watched the news of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s interesting – the Queen’s reign lasted almost as long as Israel has existed. Shortly before she died, the Queen accepted the papers of her 15th prime minister. Had Elizabeth been the queen of Israel, she would have been meeting her 30th prime minister.

To those in the room who might say: Who is this American telling us what we should do?

You would be right to say this; however, since no one else is saying it, it needs to be said. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see things that insiders might be blind to or don’t want to tackle. 

AS THE WINDS of conflict grow stronger in the Middle East and the rest of the world, it is absolutely vital that Israel revamp its electoral system in order to maintain a strong democracy. This is no time to continue this selfish game of politics. This is the time for a unified and stable Israeli government.

That is my message today and I can’t think of anything more important right now for Israel’s future. As Theodor Herzl said, if you will it, it is no dream.

To all of you in this room, stay engaged. Stand up for Israel and the Jewish people. And always take great pride in who you are, take pride in the long arc of history that we are all part of. I do every single day.

We have given the world so much. We are, indeed, an extraordinary people. And we are a people with one foot firmly planted in our traditions and the other always willing to try new ideas. That is exactly what I am asking you to do here today.

May God continue to bless our people, to keep us strong and always be willing to do what is right.