Critical Currents: It's not just the system

No formalistic corrective can substitute for a willingness to resolve the single most contentious issue on the national agenda.

0808-chazan (photo credit: Bloomberg)
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
The impending collapse of the Olmert government after barely 26 months in office, coupled with the probability of general elections, has once again provoked a clamor for electoral reform. These renewed appeals for an overhaul of the system link the instability of Israeli politics to the built-in flaws of proportional representation and the coalition antics it generates. But is the perennial volatility in the political arena merely an outgrowth of procedural defects, or is it at least as much the outcome of the absolute inability of the Israeli polity to make any clear decision on the resolution of the conflict? The latest spate of ideas aimed at "fixing" the system is usually superficial, often self-serving and generally uninformed. These include the rather half-baked proposal to revive the verifiably catastrophic direct election of the prime minister and the somewhat bizarre notion of allocating reserved seats for particular sectors (ranging from youth and immigrants to students and pensioners). They also involve apparently more reasoned suggestions to revamp the electoral system with a view to increasing accountability, augmenting the hold of the larger parties and assuring more long-lasting coalitions. All these propositions suffer from a mistaken tendency to conflate stability with governability, and to equate a reduction in the number of parties (at the expense of representation and political inclusion) with greater governmental longevity. Everywhere there is confusion of coalition durability - however artificial - with substantive clarity. Those joining the ranks of the perennial chorus for electoral reform would do well to recall that regime robustness stems from the ability to contend with concrete challenges. The policy stalemate on the negotiation front (especially with the Palestinians, but also with the Syrians) inevitably strains fragile institutions and ultimately serves to undermine governance. FOR THE past four decades, if not more, the party map in Israel has been defined by attitudes toward the Arab-Israel conflict. Israel is the only country in the democratic world where Left and Right are used exclusively as synonyms for doves and hawks. Positions on war and peace have been the determining factor in every single election since 1967, with the possible exception of the 1977 ballot which terminated Mapai hegemony. Not one government was brought down for socioeconomic reasons, and no elections were decided on domestic matters. The ideological deadlock on the future of the territories has, in fact, paralyzed successive coalitions, leading to their premature collapse. Since 1992, Israelis have experienced seven changes in government and have witnessed the rise and fall of six prime ministers. Their average term stands at 2.6 years. Ariel Sharon holds the record for the longest consecutive tenure during these years; the shortest was that of Shimon Peres in 1995-6 - 227 days. Throughout this period, the pendulum constantly shifted between moderates and hard-liners. The breakthrough policies of Yitzhak Rabin, terminated by a Jewish assassin, were not sustained by his successor, Peres. The Netanyahu interregnum (1996-9) was as crisis-ridden as it was brief, falling apart in the wake of the Wye River understandings. Ehud Barak's decisive electoral victory was even more short-lived, coming apart at Camp David and ending with the outbreak of the second intifada. Even Ariel Sharon, whose premiership spanned the height of the subsequent violence, could not endure the political fallout of the Gaza disengagement. EHUD OLMERT's unanticipated ascent to the Prime Minister's Office was meant to break this history of governmental fluctuations. By rallying the electorate around a new consensus centering on Israeli-inspired unilateral moves which would absolve the country and its leaders from entering negotiations, he and his Kadima associates sought to avoid coming to terms with the hard choices any lasting agreement involved. This hope was almost immediately shattered by the ill-fated Second Lebanon War. The resumption of negotiations first on the Palestinian and more recently on the Syrian track could not compensate for this egregious error, especially when accompanied by constant corruption investigations of the prime minister. The next vacillation is already in the making. Despite the fact that the Israeli public has come a long way since the beginning of Israeli-Palestinian talks in 1992 (there is a solid majority for a two-state solution, substantial flexibility on sharing Jerusalem, a willingness to dismantle settlements and, where necessary, to engage in an equitable land swap), these years are punctuated by a series of missed opportunities. Realization of what needs to be done has dawned only after the conditions for implementation no longer existed. Tragically, successive Israeli governments, like the public they represent, have exhibited a perplexing, persistent and profound lack of ability to decide on the most important existential question confronting the country. This foot-dragging has perpetuated - and now institutionalized - the occupation under the fallacious guise of separation. It has also gradually shaken the political system and seriously undermined its decision-making and implementation capabilities. As immobility has become the norm, malfunctions have multiplied and new faults have surfaced. The propensity to constantly tamper with the system has only exacerbated its weaknesses. Corruption in high places, unbridled assaults on the independence of the judiciary, the absence of adequate checks and balances, problems of accountability, the alarming drop in public confidence in key institutions and a pervasive sense of inefficacy are among the most notable symptoms of this malaise. IT IS tempting to directly address these outward manifestations of governmental inadequacy, but such exercises do not go to the root of the problem. Systemic dysfunction is as much a product of policy disagreements as of mechanical fissures. Politics is all about making decisions. No formalistic corrective can substitute for a willingness to resolve the single most contentious issue on the national agenda. The current state of Israeli politics painfully demonstrates a well-known truism - that countries that can't design and implement policies on topics central to their existence are bound to fall apart. To function smoothly, what is needed now, more than ever before, is a total commitment to end the occupation before it completely erodes the political system and, along with it, Israeli society as a whole.