A Fresh Perspective: Israel’s governability issues

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Israel suffers from serious problems of governability.

Knesset 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
Knesset 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
As the Knesset returns to session on October 15, one of the central bills that will be discussed in committee is the Governability Bill, which is meant to enable the government to implement policies it was elected to implement.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Israel suffers from serious problems of governability.
Ministers and Knesset members complain constantly about their inability to advance policy agendas. This creates a situation where not only are competent elected officials unable to serve their country properly, but in addition, incompetent elected officials have a great excuse for doing nothing. To compound the problem, this situation creates an atmosphere of lack of confidence in government with many Israelis starting to doubt the effectiveness of the democratic process.
However, the frustration at the current situation should not rush us into an ill-thought-out solution. This has already happened in the past: exasperated by the lack of governability, electoral law was changed in 1992 which mandated that Israelis would vote with two ballots, one for the Knesset and one for the prime minister.
While hoping to improve governability, this law ended up hurting it. Instead of strengthening the prime minister, by giving him a direct mandate; the law created a situation where people felt comfortable electing a prime minster while not voting for his party in the parliament. This left the office of the Prime Minister without any parliamentary support. This legislative change failed and the law was repealed in 2003.
The previous example shows us the problematic nature of any proposal to change the current electoral system. Small changes can have big effects, often unforeseen.
Therefore, as this bill will become a subject of discussion in the Knesset’s next session, I want to go through what I believe should be the main principles that guide legislators when evaluating this bill. I will not go into the details of the proposed bill in this current column, but will rather focus my analysis of what I believe should be the guiding principles.
Do not weaken the Knesset
The first principle is critical: Governability should not weaken the Knesset.
The Knesset consists of elected officials who represent the people of Israel. It is of course far more representative than the government since it includes the opposition.
A strong legislative branch is essential to a healthy system of checks and balances which protects citizens from dishonest leaders. It ensures that leaders implement the policies for which they receive a mandate. If anything, in the current system, the Knesset is incredibly weak and unable to successfully argue against government bills. This is true because of the large number of small parties which would need to come together to build a successful opposition, and also because of the “party list” system through which Knesset members are required to show more loyalty to their party than to their electorate in order to stay in the Knesset and therefore almost never oppose the policies of the leaders of their parties, even when it is not the wish of their electorate.
The most obvious example of the weakness of the Knesset and the strength of an elected official can be seen in the disengagement. In a healthy electoral system, a prime minister should not be able to get elected on an explicit promise to fight plans such as the disengagement, and then decide to advance such a plan. In a healthy system, Ariel Sharon should not have been able to implement the disengagement before first going to new elections. However, he did just that.
As a right-wing person, I do not want any new disengagement. I do not want a right-wing prime minister who decides to change his mind and start supporting left-wing policies. However, the questions we are dealing with are systemic and therefore both sides of the coin need to be looked at, and so I ask the leftist readers of this column: If a left-wing prime minister was elected, and one day, for some unknown reason, he decided to annex Judea and Samaria and build a number of new cities there, without going to new elections, how would you feel? In a healthy democratic system, a prime minister should not be able to do such a thing and his main obstacle should be the Knesset providing for checks and balances.
The improvement of governability should not come at the cost of the Knesset’s power.
Strengthen elected officials
If this is the case, how should one improve governability in Israel? The truth is that the real cause for the lack of governability in Israel is much less popular than electoral reform. It is in the relationship between elected officials and unelected bureaucrats.
In a healthy system, the elected officials decide and civil servants implement. In Israel, the elected officials try to decide, but are obstructed by civil servants who see such initiatives as inimical to their own influence.
This is true in the case of legal advisers, the subject of my last column, who have a formalized veto power and can decide to block any decision which they believe to be illegal, even if they are wrong and without going to court.
Legal advisers often have other reasons than purely legal reasons for not allowing policy changes. However, it is also true of the Budget Department in the Finance Ministry that can decide which money goes where, or of the Civil Service Commission that decides who can hire personnel and when. It is also true of simple bureaucrats in various government offices, most notably maybe in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, but also in ministries such as the Education Ministry, who knowingly push forward policy agendas that are completely at odds with the desires of elected officials.
Of course, they have the purest intentions, wanting to do the “right” thing. However, the right thing to do in a democracy is for the people to rule themselves through their elected officials and not for bureaucrats to make decisions and stop policy implementation or policy change.
If someone wants to truly help governability in Israel, his main focus should be on strengthening elected officials and bringing back bureaucrats to a policy-implementing position instead of a policy-making position.
Fight blackmail That being said, one cannot ignore that our electoral system does have some problems and that the governability problems are not limited to issues of bureaucracy.
One of the big problems with the Israeli system is the presence of sectorial parties which do not have the national interest at heart but rather try to maximize what their sector gets from the government. This is often done through blackmail of the type: “Either you give me more than your opponent for my sector, or I will vote against you.”
Truthfully, this is not foreign to government.
In America, although there is a two-party system, the same thing happens. The only difference is that it happens on a geographical level and not on a sectorial level, with each house representative or senator trying to get more from government for the geographical area he represents. This leads to the famous pork-barrelfilled bills that America knows too well.
However, the fact that this exists in other countries does not mean that it is not a problem.
The government shutdown in the US is a clear sign that no system is perfect.
Strengthen the link between the electors and the elected officials
One of the most striking differences between the Israeli system and other systems comes from the lack of accountability in the Israeli system. In fact, many joke about the fact that there is no real word to translate accountability into in Hebrew.
This fact stems from a reality we hinted at before. The “party list” system through which electors choose between party lists and not actual people means that the elected officials are accountable to the people who decide who gets on the party list and not to regular citizens. These people can be party chairmen, party members or selection committees. However, even parties which let party members decide who goes on the list are not representative of the general electorate and are often overtaken by interest groups, be they political, ideological or economic interests.
A proper reform has to strengthen the link between the elected officials, individually, and the people who elect them in order to strengthen accountability. Many propose a regional system with counties, as in many other areas in the world. Other options are also available. However, one thing is clear: something must be done.
Cautious change
The issues of governability are definitely one area where policy change would be appropriate.
It is my hope that this coming Knesset session will include a deep conversation about the consequences of the proposed bill, according to the principles outlined above, to ensure that the new system will give the ability for the citizens of people to get the government they want. The writer is an attorney who graduated from McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s honors graduate program in public policy. He is currently working as a research fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum.