Encountering Peace: Israel's political system is broken

I have believed for years that the only way to advance a genuine chance for peace is through direct secret back channels.

A WOMAN casts a ballot in the March 2015 national election (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A WOMAN casts a ballot in the March 2015 national election
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It very well may be that genuine peace making is political suicide for Israeli political leaders, that Israel’s fragile political system makes it impossible to advance peace. The fragmented nature of Israel’s polity, resulting in the need to form coalition governments, fosters regimes that encourage status-quo, stand-in-place policies vis-à-vis the most critical question facing Israel – the future borders of the state.
Whether by desire, planning or lack of statesmanship, the frailty of the coalition governments has been a convenient excuse for just about every Israeli leader who has tried or has thought about trying to advance a peace agreement that would require withdrawing from parts of the Land of Israel. That is why I have believed for years that the only way to advance a genuine chance for peace is through direct secret back channels.
But since Benjamin Netanyahu was elected in 2009 attempts to advance such channels have failed – not solely because of Netanyahu’s lack of political will but mostly because of that. Netanyahu has claimed to various interlocutors and mediators that his coalition would not allow him to advance an agreement that included withdrawals from territory or any compromises on Jerusalem. That is, at best, a convenient truth – it is clear that Netanyahu himself is not interested in any real political agreement with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu has been in power long enough for us to all understand that he has no intention of making a deal with the Palestinians that would require Israel to withdraw from territory – and there is no Palestinian alive who would accept a deal with Israel that has no territorial dimension without granting Palestinians full citizenship in Israel. That is not going to happen either.
If the winds of change do not suddenly bring about a swift shift in Israeli public opinion from the Right to the Left, it seems that we will be stuck with weak coalition governments headed by weak leaders who lack the fortitude and statesmanship to pull Israel back from the brink and deliver a peace agreement with our neighbors. Perhaps it is time to revisit the issues concerning electoral and political system reform in Israel.
Netanyahu has been the main critic regarding the issues concerning weak Israeli governance. Netanyahu’s answers to the problems have been far from spot-on and carry a strong stench of politicization of the judicial system, law enforcement and civil service. In the past Netanyahu spoke about the need to develop a more presidential system for Israel’s governance needs.
There does need to be more separation between the legislative branch and the executive branch. The Knesset suffers from severe dysfunctionality and Knesset members have to serve on far too many committees because so many of their colleagues are ministers or deputy ministers who do not fully participate in the legislative process. Our ministries suffer from a lack of professionalism and we, the people, do not get the level of governmental services that we deserve.
The ministers in the government need to be much more professional in their fields than the politicians who run them today. Israel clearly needs more stability and political security for leaders to be able to have a vision, a plan, an agenda and a means to implement them. The government and its cabinet need to be much more professionally qualified to take on the difficult tasks of setting priorities and offering better services to the people.
In the past, the proposal for direct election of the prime minister was tried, tested and failed. The idea then was that with direct elections, the prime minister would be more independent and more able to govern.
In the end what happened is that the voters divided their votes, supporting one person for prime minister but not supporting the prime minister’s political party, instead voting for smaller, more ideological parties.
The center was weakened, the extremes increased their power and many more coalition partners had to be contended with. The system created a less governable Israel. The needed changes to finalize a constitution were also not completed and we ended up going back to the same old system that existed before.
The main parties in Israel should be able to get together once again under the same platform of creating a better system of governance. All of the contenders for the premiership should be interested in creating a system of government which would enable them to lead and not simply keep the status quo because their coalition might fall apart.
They can get beyond spending their time maintaining their coalition and actually work for real progress.
Imagine having leaders with vision and the ability to implement it. We, the voters, could actually make a choice based on what we truly believe in and not the simple, simplistic and shallow voting for the best looking, the best fear monger, best speaker or biggest bully.
Yes, there is a real danger that a prime minister with too much power could be a threat to our democracy.
That is why we need strong institutions in the other branches of government – especially the Supreme Court. We need to limit power and the number of terms in office, and have the necessary checks and balances. But we also need to just look around us to understand that our current system gives way too much power to the prime minister without the ability to govern and without the public demand to present a vision and a program of action.
We need Israel’s best minds to once again begin to present new ideas, to launch public debate and discourse in order to strengthen our democracy and hopefully to enable leaders who want to make peace to go ahead and get the job done.
The author is founder and co-chairman of IPCRI, Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives. www.ipcri.org