My Word: Working hard to deserve better

Is it the political system or the political culture that needs reforming?

liat collins 88 (photo credit: )
liat collins 88
(photo credit: )
In a performance in Israel a decade ago, comedian Sandra Bernhard summed up the Israel-Arab conflict with the conclusion: "You two peoples deserve each other." It was a typical Bernhardism. She's so pithy, she can't help but pith people off. If I recall correctly it was also Bernhard who said: "I've been with men and I've been with women. They deserve each other." If it wasn't her, it should have been. It suits her witty, worldly philosophical style. Ahead of her scheduled performance this week (it couldn't have been so bad last time) she told The Jerusalem Post's David Brinn of her infamous Sarah Palin gang-rape quote: "Women deserve better." The "deserve each other" style jibe readily adapts itself to a wide range of topics: Fatah and Hamas? They deserve each other. The boss and the income tax man? They deserve each other. Reality TV and television viewers? They deserve each other. Tzipi Livni and Bibi Netanyahu? Well, you get the point. The problem is, of course, that the sound-bite school of life is itself part of the problem: People who believe in sound bites also get what they deserve. While the coalition talks between Kadima and Likud were characterized more by the "stale" than the "mate," there was much discussion of the need for widesweeping political reform. One slogan that quickly proved its meaninglessness was Livni's "Politika aheret" - "a different type of politics." Or maybe it could mean anything and nothing at the same time in the "deserve it" style. IT OCCURS to me that it is not necessary to overhaul the whole political system. Long before the Livni and Netanyahu show(down), we had the Ehud Barak vs Netanyahu face-off in direct elections. As a result, a newly elected Livni in 1999 told me: "Both major parties came crashing down, and the reason is the Direct Election Law." Perhaps it is not the system that needs changing but the political culture? After all, it is the nature of democracy to let the people have their say and then say "no" to the wishes of a large proportion of them. Changing the system without making an effort to change our fundamental approach and demand accountability will not get rid of the wheeling and dealing. It will just move the coalition bargaining to before the elections instead of afterwards. One obvious change mentioned by almost all those in favor of electoral reform is to raise the threshold so that more votes are required for a party to acquire its Knesset seats. But what if the public simply gave out the clear message that the small parties were making a lot of noise and creating a disturbance? A party combining Holocaust survivors with the lobby to legalize marijuana sounds more like a tasteless joke in a stand-up comedy than something that could be considered a serious contender for a seat in the House. Having more than one Green party was also detrimental to the cause, especially as they identified more with the Left. What is a Right-thinking environmentalist to do? And, at the risk of offending both Left and Right Greens, it could be asked whether there needs to be an environmental party in the Knesset at all, or whether it wouldn't be more productive to identify sympathetic MKs across the board and lobby via NGOs, not bound by coalition agreements and the need to toe a party line. It is rather ironic to have a party (Israelim) dedicated to pushing for electoral reforms which could not realistically have expected to have passed the threshold and did not seem to have a comprehensive stand on other (minor?) issues like the Iranian nuclear threat, the security situation posed by missiles from both the North and South, and the economic crisis. IN THE five years I covered the Knesset as the Post's parliamentary reporter, no matter who was in the Speaker's chair, I don't remember the start of a winter sitting without the warning that "it's going to be stormy" or a summer sitting without the prediction "it will be hot." Part of the problem could be fixed were the opposition to feel it has a real role to play in the House. At the moment, there is a conflict of interests: Labor needs to stay in opposition as long as possible to rehabilitate itself; Kadima - assuming it does move to the opposition benches - needs to try to bring down the government as soon as possible, before Livni's standing disappears, some of its frustrated members return to the Likud and power, and before Labor, with the more attractive list, succeeds in gaining strength. There is no real incentive, then, for stability or a different type of politics. Politicians by their very natures need a large ego. One method of bringing a dose of stability to the Knesset would be to establish a shadow government. Very few MKs in the past made the successful transition from power to the back benches. One of the few who come to mind is former finance minister Avraham Shochat (Labor) who after losing his cabinet post continued to work hard as a "simple" MK, in effect monitoring what was happening in his particular area of expertise. It is understandably hard for someone who has been addressed as "Minister" to return to being a humbled MK. Instead of using the time to write memoirs of what has been, these parliamentarians should start doing what it was they were elected to do: listen to the people and draw up legislation. Admittedly, it is not going to be easy for them to be literally shadows of their former selves. But it would provide them with a sense of purpose and - most importantly, unfortunately, in today's political reality - a platform from which to keep their names in the public eye via the media. Newly elected MKs, too, should find their niche and stick to a special field of interest. There is no lack of social-economic issues that need tackling. The public also has a role: Instead of asking how to bring down each government the moment it is elected, people need to ask themselves the price of these constant changes. Hint: Ask those Green supporters about the country's environmental infrastructure in times of a water and energy crisis. When ministers know they have probably got only two years in office, they are not going to plan very far ahead. They're tempted to cut as many corners and red ribbons as possible. Keep in mind what George Bernard Shaw with his lasting wit once said: "Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve."