Time to change the system

The average lifespan of an Israeli government - just 23 months - leads to a political "culture of paralysis."

Knesset 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Knesset 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Any observer of Israel, anyone who tries to sum up its 60-year old record, must notice the failure of its political system. The facts speak for themselves: the average duration of an Israeli government is 23 months, that of ministers - 18 months. Indeed, when one finally gets an appointment with an Israeli minister, there is every chance that by the time of the meeting, he will have left office. Ministerial policy is abandoned before its final drafting. Some ministries - like the Interior Ministry - have suffered from ministerial musical chairs in such quick succession that even experienced journalists fail to recall who the current minister is. The inevitable result is that decisions are made by powerful, unelected civil servants. However, this is not a typical case of "yes, minister" in which the experienced civil servant guides the political babe-in-the-woods politician. It is rather a case of "no minister" - a blunt exercise of veto powers claimed especially by legal advisers. Here is how Moshe Nissim, a former minister of justice and of finance, describes the present "culture of paralysis." "Ministers and directors-generals do not make decisions but turn to legal advisors… and these advisors have illegally acquired the authority to rule on non-legal matters… This authority is given to them not because of necessity, but because of fear… Everybody looks for cover, so that the (state) controller will not criticize the action and the (legal) advisor will not utter a bad word." THIS CULTURE of paralysis has led Dror Sturm, formerly director general of the anti-trust authority, to draft a bill, adopted recently by MK. Gilad Arden, which establishes a minister's right to determine the priorities of his ministry's policy. The need for such a law speaks for itself. The results of this paralysis are seen everywhere; decisions take years and ministers are powerless to do anything about it. Needles to say, rumors of corruption and recent revelations about illegal finances of parties and primaries, as well as Mr. Talansky's testimony, have tainted the whole political class and have given rise to the cry: "Down with the corrupt!" In this atmosphere, it is the non-corrupt, non-elected official who has the upper hand; he will outlast the elected minister and, therefore, can flout his will. WE HAVE seen such phenomenon in other countries. Italy actually has prospered despite the short duration of its weak governments. The difference is that in Israel, governments have tremendous powers. Practically all lands belong to the state, managed by the paralysis-stricken lands administration - which surely must be the rock bottom of Israel's notorious bureaucracy. The fact that this administration is run by unelected bureaucrats and that the minister in charge is powerless to act, has had a disastrous effect on Israel's economy and has driven many an Israeli entrepreneur to friendlier shores. Indeed, the political malaise is so palpable that one in tempted to conclude that there is something basically at fault with Israeli society itself. Yet, this conclusion is refuted by the success of this very same society in its economy - a remarkable success story of growth, initiative and inventiveness which astounds all observers. The fault then lies not in something endemic to Israeli society. It must be found in the political system: Israel's proportional representation system has reached a dead end. As Jerusalem Post columnist Amotz Asa-El shows in the last issue of Tchelet magazine, this system is responsible for most of the political ills. Paradoxically, its effect is disproportional. Small swing parties, including those which are here today and gone tomorrow, can force their will on the majority. The compromise between representation and effectiveness - which is the life and soul of every democracy - is tilted in favor of absolute representation and non-effective governments, in which minority parties have the same clout as majority ones. It is time to change this destructive system by raising the minimal threshold (presently set at two percent) which enables the parties to get seats in the Knesset and to change the law so that the party getting the plurality of votes will form the government even before a coalition is gathered. Indeed, it is time for much-needed change. The writer is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, a former minister of education and MK as well as the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.