Middle Israel: The other strategic threat

Economics must be discussed at least as passionately as defense.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Widespread talk this election season about the need to discuss economics at least as passionately and urgently as defense issues is a breath of fresh air. After decades dominated by eastern threats, Western alliances and northern exposures, quips like Amir Peretz's the other day, that poverty should be treated as a strategic threat, should be welcome. Apparently, all contestants now realize that the public expects, and deserves, some treatment of domestic affairs that would succeed the traditional, and futile, bickering over war and peace - areas in which Israel can maneuver plenty but revolutionize little. Yet the new domestic momentum would be squandered if the major parties emerging from the March election arrive there shorn of unequivocal commitments to, and clear plans for, political reform. For now, the party most committed to reform is Kadima. Though it has yet to specify just what it means by that, Sharon's party has been joined by Prof. Uriel Reichman, a veteran reform crusader, and Meir Sheetrit, an emphatic believer in regional Knesset elections and a reempowered prime minister. In Labor there are also many fans, now led by Prof. Avishay Braverman, but the party as an institution, and Amir Peretz as an individual, have yet to say even something as impressionistic as what Kadima has said about political reform. In Likud there is also considerable openness to reform, highlighted by Binyamin Netanyahu's 15-year-old support for prime-ministerial reform and Gideon Sa'ar's bill for the regional election of 30 lawmakers. The common denominator among these is the recognition that the current system's ailments have become intolerable, as reflected by the unreasonable powers assumed, and abused, by Likud's party center. It follows, then, that the three major parties would already now embark on negotiations for a concerted effort to formulate principles for action come March 29. THE ISRAELI situation has come to resemble France's predicament prior to the emergence of the Fifth Republic. Charles de Gaulle recalled once that while trying to discuss one day in 1934 his latest ideas on armored defense with Leon Blum, he could not sustain the conversation because the prime minister received phone calls throughout the meeting. In later years - as biographer Charles Williams writes - the general reckoned that Blum's mental unavailability that day reflected a broader era of governmental weakness, highlighted by the rise and fall of no fewer than 14 governments between 1932 and 1937 alone. When the Third Republic fell apart, giving way to the Vichy government, de Gaulle concluded that there was a relationship between his country's prewar political impotence and its wartime unraveling. Here and now, Mickey Eitan points out that during the 57 years in which Israel has had 16 parliaments, it had 31 governments. Not only have governments risen and fallen much too frequently, in recent years ministerial turnover has become so high that one is at a loss to sustain programmatic consistency. The Transport Ministry, for instance, saw its minister change five times in the past five years. Surely, this is no way to run a railroad. Meanwhile, the Knesset's role is fundamentally misunderstood, with members disparaging - or altogether unaware - of their duties as fulltime lawmakers and governmental watchdogs, and focusing instead on using the legislature as a stepping stone for executive office. Throughout, their basic reference group is not a constituency of voters, but several thousand party hacks, who in turn are up to their necks in vested interests. Once they manage to become deputy ministers, Knesset members focus on becoming ministers, and as junior ministers they strive to unseat the senior ministers, and once there they become dedicated to unseating the prime minister. Meanwhile, the prime minister is habitually held hostage by lawmakers from here and party forums there, who between them make the very practice of government all but impossible. And this is even before one probes the corruption for which the party centers are famous, and the cronyism for which Israeli local government is notorious. All this must end. Our political system - the only one in the world where not even one legislator is elected regionally - has become so dysfunctional and corrupt that it, too, like what de Gaulle detected, has come to threaten national security. To address this threat, the major parties can agree on the following goals: * the executive and legislative branches must be separated; * the prime minister must be more empowered; * lawmakers should become accountable to their legislative performance. Between them, Braverman, Reichman and a senior Likud reformist - perhaps Natan Sharansky - can now set the post-election agenda. Once these principles are agreed upon, life will be easier, though still far from simple, first of all because there are so many options for change. For instance, some advocate 90 regional Knesset members being elected in 90 regions and 30 nationally, some seek the exact reversal of this ratio, and some propose 20 regions, each of which will elect six lawmakers. Tel Aviv University political scientist Dan Ben-David advocates a 90-member Knesset with 30 Knesset members representing 30 districts for two-year terms, and 30 for four-year terms, and another 30 to be elected nationally for six-year terms, while the Israel Democracy Institute's Arik Carmon wants a two-sided ballot where in one side we'll elect a party and on the other we'll rank its Knesset candidates. At the same time, Carmon vehemently opposes Braverman's and Reichman's advocacy of a presidential empowerment of the prime minister. Still, a tripartisan understanding about the principles of change may breed agreement on the mechanics of a reform, something like: 80 regionally elected Knesset members; a ban on cross-membership in the legislature and cabinet; the prime minister appointing his own cabinet with the ability to unilaterally disband the Knesset, but dismissable by 80 Knesset members. Surely the small parties - from Jewish messianists to Arab neo-fascists - are out to fight tooth and nail any electoral-reform attempt. Few people know this, but in the current coalition agreement there is a clause Ariel Sharon granted UTJ, promising that no reform legislation will be passed as long as this coalition is intact. The small parties fear reform will wipe them off map. It won't. Rather, it will compel them to lobby from within the parties that represent the broad mainstream, the way numerous pressure groups, from the National Rifle Association to the pro-choice lobby, do in America. Earlier this year Israel made one major strategic choice and carried it out resolutely. Yet that choice, to abandon Gaza, has been, and will for many years remain, debatable. Our political system's condition is no longer debatable: it is sick to the bone and threatens us strategically no less than the Syrian army. Does it have to take a de Gaulle to understand, and do something about, this?