My Word: Time to heal a sick political system

Whoever wins the election, it is in the interests of the general public that electoral reform be placed on the agenda.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets vaccinated for the novel coronavirus. (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets vaccinated for the novel coronavirus.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Sometimes I’m lost for words. This week I was looking for an English equivalent to the term “havaya metakenet.” It got lost in translation. Literally a “repairing experience,” it is commonly used by Hebrew speakers to mean a healing experience. When you wish someone “better luck next time,” you are hoping they have a havaya metakenet.
Maybe I wasn’t stuck for words so much as having a hard time coming to terms with yet another round of elections heading our way – the fourth general election in two years. That the last Knesset lasted just nine months should give us all a pregnant pause for thought.
You can have too much of a good thing – even your democratic right to vote – especially if there is nothing healing about the experience.
It’s party time, but not in the sense of a celebration. Already, MKs are hopping from one party to another and even by the Knesset’s standards, the footage of parliamentarians Michal Shir and Ram Shefa hiding in the Knesset subterranean parking lot to keep the element of surprise before the vote on Tuesday night was embarrassing: talk about underground opposition. They voted against the bill that would have extended the deadline for passing the budget, which in turn would have avoided the dispersal of the Knesset.
Gideon Saar’s New Hope Party has made major gains in polls and attracted new members, including Zeev Elkin, Shir and Sharren Haskel, who also voted against the bill that would have prolonged the 23rd Knesset. They all quit the Likud following the vote. Every election in Israel has its “new hope.” Not that long ago it was Yesh Atid – “There’s a future.” Now Yair Lapid’s party barely has a past. Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party underwent several permutations before settling on its rather unimaginative name. Blue and White has paled into insignificance. Both its top big shots – Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi – are former IDF chiefs of staff but political novices and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognized the weak spots of the rookies.
Not only is it difficult to keep up with the names of the Knesset members and cabinet ministers when they have such short political lives, it’s hard to keep track of the names of the parties. Remember, for example, when Naftali Bennett’s list was called the New Right before it became Yamina?
This gave rise to another disconcerting trend: Many parties have become known mainly by the name of the person heading them: Bennett’s party is being challenged by Sa’ar’s party; Lapid’s party is concerned of the talk of another new party lead by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, which if it gets off the ground will no doubt be known as Huldai’s party.
It’s indicative of the way that parties are based on individuals – who come and go – rather than platforms. Likud is still known as Likud but it is a one-man show, hence nearly all the opposition can be summed up as running with the campaign slogan “Just not Bibi.” But a campaign requires a long-term strategy, not just temporary tactics. Spin doctors can get votes, but they cannot cure the political system of all that ails it. And it is unhealthy.
Despite the medical and financial crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s leadership is yet again (or still) primarily concerned with electioneering – tempted to take populist and expensive measures ahead of the vote. Given that the government did not even manage to draw up a budget for 2020, the financial implications are serious. This is no time to be on auto-pilot – especially if the pilots are busy arguing in the cockpit.
The Israeli political system has grown too unruly. Instead of drawing up a budget to take the country through the coronavirus-era, politicians are playing games of musical chairs, scrabbling to find a seat that has a reasonable chance of being in the next Knesset.
And then what? Under the current system, the country seems doomed to go repeatedly to the ballot box only to end up with the same type of stalemate. The way the system works – or doesn’t work – the prime minister is not automatically the leader of the party which gains the largest number of votes but the person who can present to the president the likelihood of the most stable coalition – usually a collection of parties amounting to at least 61 seats out in the 120-member Knesset. This leads to a lot of political bartering and places a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of the leaders of smaller parties – who can play kingmaker – and perhaps also in the hands of the president.
Whoever wins the election, it is in the interests of the general public that electoral reform be placed on the agenda. True, there are many issues of strategic importance to deal with – continuing to make progress in the diplomatic arena to build on the four recent peace treaties, the security situation, Iran’s intentions, the health crisis, the economic crisis and the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. But unless there is a genuine reform, Knesset members will continue to bring the House down and the public will continue to vote no-confidence in its elected leaders. Eventually, citizens will stop turning out on polling day – voting with their feet, instead of the ballot.
It’s too early to predict who will ultimately form the next government but one thing’s certain: Party leaders must concentrate on finding some common ground. As this paper’s parliamentary reporter during the years of the Oslo Accords, the wave of terrorism that followed and the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, I saw firsthand that MKs from different parties and opposing sides often worked together. If they could do it then, they can do it now.
It is extraordinary that so many thousands of Israelis have traveled to Dubai in the few months since the peace agreement was signed with the United Arab Emirates, but fail to find peace much closer to home.
As I have noted before, each member of the public can choose individually how to act during the electioneering and how to respond to the election results, whether or not it was what they desired. Many people will automatically call for another national-unity government after the March 23 election. But this is not feasible when so many parties are barely united within themselves. Unity can only be based on mutual goals – not mutual attempted destruction of a political rival.
And if the country has learned anything from the last short-but-not-sweet Knesset, it is that we cannot afford another super-inflated government. We can’t afford it in any sense. Let’s face it,  having some 35 cabinet ministers did not solve the country’s problems – it couldn’t even pass a budget, which would have prevented the need to disperse the Knesset a fourth time in quick succession. The more is not the merrier in this case. Adding even more seats around the cabinet table does nothing to solve the problem of unemployment in coronavirus times
A mass vaccination program was launched this week – with Netanyahu making sure to set an example and gain some primetime TV coverage by being the first to get a shot. The program has the catchy title “Give a Shoulder.” Now is the time to offer a shoulder to lean on. The government fell, but that shouldn’t be allowed to bring the country down too.
The cycle of nonstop elections followed by political paralysis must stop. In this case, practice does not make perfect. It is the system that needs fixing, not the experience.
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