Critical Currents: Superficial remedies

Ehud Olmert's governmental reform plan would create a strongman system devoid of checks and balances.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
It is now official. The campaign to transform Israel into a presidential system went into high gear last week with Ehud Olmert's announcement of a set of proposals for governmental reform. Under the guise of stabilizing the administration and increasing its efficiency, these measures will create a strongman system devoid of checks and balances. This is not the way to improve Israel's political institutions or to enhance their performance. It is, as similar experiments elsewhere have repeatedly demonstrated, a tested prescription for democratic breakdown. The package presented by the prime minister contains several components, all focusing on bolstering executive autonomy. The most significant is that the leader of the largest party automatically becomes prime minister, capable of forming a coalition without Knesset approval. This streamlined government (composed of no more than 18 ministers) could only be toppled in a vote of no confidence by a preferential majority of the house (66 members). The prime minister, however, would be allowed to disperse the parliament and call for new elections at any time (alternatively, a law to that effect could be passed by an even greater majority of 73 votes). To further augment executive powers, all ministers would be required to relinquish their parliamentary seats, and at least one-quarter of the ministers would be drawn from a professional pool, appointed directly by the prime minister and excluded from the coalitional calculus. The results of these moves are obvious. On the one hand, the prime minister and his government will be able to remain in place for the duration of their term if they so desire. On the other hand, they would be allowed to act unimpeded, since virtually all the reins on their power will have been removed. If implemented, this plan, purposefully obfuscating terminology aside, means that Israel will cease to be a parliamentary democracy. It will also be bereft of any real checks on the abuse of office. NONE OF the suggestions raised by Olmert is new. Uriel Reichman, his adviser for governmental reform, has floated similar ideas for the past 20 years. Barely two months ago, he was instrumental in the establishment of a new movement for governmental reform along these lines, Yesh Tikva (There is Hope), led by a star-studded list of lawyers, doctors, businessmen and retired generals - with nary a prominent political scientist in sight. This organization, a barely disguised reincarnation of his "Constitution for Israel" responsible for the calamitous change to the direct election of the prime minister in 1992, splashed ads in leading newspapers this week commending, by name, the sponsors of the proposed reform. Once again, a concerted, well-heeled, effort is being made to sell superficial remedies for extremely complicated problems. The dangers inherent in such reductionism go even deeper: the identification of the core problem plaguing Israel's political system is simply wrong. The presumption behind the current initiative is that the prime minister and his cabinet are too weak to rule efficiently. In truth, however, the issue in recent years has never been the powers of the executive - extensive by any measure - but who wields this power and how it is used. The last thing Israel needs at this juncture is to extend even greater freedoms to its already under-supervised (and ethically tarnished) leadership, especially if this involves providing a palliative for insecure officeholders at the expense of an already emasculated opposition. WHAT THE country does require is a careful professional analysis of the frailties in its system and the design of appropriate mechanisms for their rectification. By far the most pressing task is to grapple with the weakest link - the absence of robust checks and balances. The starting point is the palpable need to fortify Knesset oversight capacities. This implies increasing the information resources available to its members, overhauling the committee system, reducing the number of individual committee memberships, encouraging MK specialization by rewarding seniority, and establishing more effective instruments for the continuous monitoring of the executive. A second priority is to address the crisis of accountability. This involves not only the injection of norms of personal responsibility at the highest echelons of government, but also electoral (not only governmental) reform. The introduction of a personal approval vote without undermining the proportional principle which has buttressed Israel's highly representative character is one possibility. Such a step might have the added advantage of doing away with the corrupting primary system and reinvigorating party discipline. If linked to some kind of regionalization, it could reduce the number of political parties and prevent further fragmentation. These measures might help to reverse the growing disaffection with all things political so prevalent in Israeli society today. Governmental decision-making can be vastly improved not by granting it greater authority but by supplying it with more expertise. The bolstering of the role of the National Security Council, together with the creation of a Social Policy Council, can go a long way towards establishing a rhythm of productive strategic planning. These are but a few suggestions for making Israel's parliamentary democracy function better. They call for an integrated, comprehensive approach to governmental reform - a far cry from the piecemeal moves contained in the latest Olmert plan. What Israel needs now is a responsible revamping of its democratic foundations, not another simplistic experiment in governmental reform. The voices being raised in opposition to the present proposal across the political spectrum - on the Right, center and Left - should be heeded. The campaign launched by the prime minister must be stopped before it gains more momentum.