The battle for sensible government

That’s what the Barzilai fiasco is all about.

netanyahu arrives at cabinet meeting 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
netanyahu arrives at cabinet meeting 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Recent headlines regarding the Middle East have understandably been dominated by the worrying deterioration in US-Israel relations. Many eagerly await the response of chastened Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the forthright demands of President Barack Obama. However, the furor has overshadowed another prime ministerial announcement which must not be overlooked as it too has wide reaching implications for Israel’s future.
LAST MONTH, Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman decided to revamp construction plans for a much-needed reinforced emergency room at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center on the grounds that old bones found on the site might be Jewish and therefore “cannot be removed.” The Israel Medical Association opposed the decision, emphasizing that moving the emergency room further away from the rest of the hospital could endanger lives. It pointed out that during last year’s Gaza conflict, 80 percent of those treated were discharged prematurely as Barzilai is unprotected from Kassam rockets and that Litzman’s new convoluted plan prolonged this dangerous reality by an estimated three years.
Meanwhile, the Antiquities Authority said that the bones belong to pagans, not Jews. In addition, there is the not insignificant matter that Litzman’s proposed relocation would cost the taxpayer an estimated extra NIS 100 million.
No matter to Litzman though, who as a Gur hassid representing United Torah Judaism chose to obey the clique of ultra-conservative rabbis who are his party’s puppet masters. He adopted their fringe opinion opposing the original plans to protect Barzilai, placing dubiously Jewish graves over the well-being of Ashkelon’s vulnerable citizens.
Perhaps more worrying than Litzman and his cronies’ warped sense of priorities though, are the implications that the entire episode has on the country’s political system. There can be very few in the government who genuinely share Litzman’s attachment to the ancient remains in question. Yet, when the matter came to a vote, Netanyahu’s cabinet endorsed the Barzilai relocation, albeit by a slim margin of 11-10.
Sensing public outrage, the prime minister then authorized a review of the decision and this week mercifully announced that Litzman’s proposal had been rejected. Litzman’s party though will meet this week to decide how to respond, having previously warned that should construction be permitted on the ancient graves, its rabbis will decide whether to quit the government. A party spokesman commented, “The rabbis could decide anything.”
It is no great revelation that small parties and narrow interest groups such as Litzman’s United Torah Judaism have long wielded disproportionate power in our fractious political system. Yet the cabinet’s cowing and Netanyahu’s subsequent procrastination over such an illogical, unpopular and frankly dangerous plan expose the extent to which the government is held to ransom by those who do not represent the public interest. That the government placed its own well-being above public safety must act as a wake up call to review the very system of government which makes such negligence possible.
Prime ministers are invariably so occupied with keeping their awkward coalition intact that there is little opportunity to get down to the actual business of government. It is worth reflecting that on the first anniversary of Netanyahu’s election, many commentators agree that his greatest accomplishment has been the simple fact that he remains in power as opposed to any substantial achievement on behalf of the electorate. Unsurprisingly, long-term planning is a rarity for governments whose life span is rarely much longer than two years.
There is no perfect model of democracy, or else it would be universallyadopted. But our current system stifles the very ability to govern. Ourelectoral system inevitably produces an unworkable coalition of oftencompeting interests. It is selected through an almost identicalelectoral process to the one used to choose the pre-state Zionistorgans which governed the Jewish community in mandate-era Palestine. Itmay have been an appropriate system of government for a largelyhomogeneous community of roughly 600,000 people in the 1940s. But, thestate’s founders would likely be shocked to discover that the very samesystem is still in use in a complex country of 7 million citizenscomprising a wide spectrum of backgrounds, beliefs and socioeconomicstatus.
Some argue that asking lawmakers to voluntarily change the very systemwhich places them in positions of power is unrealistic, but the timefor public debate on the issue is long overdue. The country facesmomentous challenges and if the government can be held so blatantly toransom over plans for Barzilai Medical Center, how can we be sure thatour leaders will make the right choices when it comes to the deeplydivisive issues of sovereignty, peace and war?
The government may soon have grave decisions to make over Iran, and itwill even sooner be forced to respond to Obama’s demands oversettlements and Jerusalem. These delicate deliberations must not besubject to the mercy of narrow interest groups and fringe politicalparties. Israel’s future, just like the welfare of Barzilai MedicalCenter cannot be laid on the altar of political self-interest.
The writer is a communications professional based in Tel Aviv.