Political appointments will not solve Israel’s governability problems

The main problem with governability in Israel is that Israel’s coalition governments are becoming increasingly incoherent.

The Knesset building (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Knesset building
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The explanation we have received for the current efforts to increase the number of political appointments in the ministries at the expense of professional civil servants, is that it is a necessary move in order to resolve Israel’s governability problems. Why will more political appointments have this effect? Because, it is argued in the government, Israel’s governability problems arise primarily from the fact that the various gatekeepers in the government administration prevent ministers from getting their policies adopted and implemented.
It is against this background that one should view the recent proposal by Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked and Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin – both of whom were appointed in July to a newly formed ministerial committee to deal with political appointments – to give ministers greater say in the appointment of the legal advisers to their ministries, and to enable ministers to appoint not only the director general of their ministry, but his/her deputy as well.
The latter proposal was raised by them at the government meeting last week, but Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided not to bring the proposal to a vote, because he felt it was lily-livered. He proceeded to mock the hapless Shaked and Levin, even though their moderation did not reflect their intentions, an attempt to get around the reservations of the Attorney General.
I have no doubt that Shaked and Yariv are avid readers of the studies published by the right-wing Kohelet Forum, which provides serious, well-reasoned analyses of various issues that the political right wishes to promote. In June 2015, Dr.Yitzhak Klein and attorney Avital Ben-Shlomo published an impressive 90-page study on the subject of “Governability and Appointments in Israel,” with a good deal of useful documentation.
There is just one problem with this study, as well as with how Shaked and Levin present the issue, and that is that they do not mention what sort of policies are blocked by the various gatekeepers, and prevent the current government from getting its policies approved and executed.
To the best of my knowledge it is not the gatekeepers who are responsible for preventing the lowering of the cost of housing in Israel, or for Israel not having comprehensive policies on such issues as the treatment of the helpless aged, ensuring a descent existence to its disabled, preventing the collapse of Israel’s once-magnificent agricultural sector, or even a multi-annual plan for the IDF.
In the case of the cost of housing, the problem is the attempt to find a solution within the context of free-market mechanisms, in the case of the other issues mentioned, it is because the government simply hasn’t bothered to work out comprehensive policies. Incidentally, the issue of a multi-annual plan for the IDF was recently dealt with in a highly critical report by a subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. There was no mention of gatekeepers in this report – just of the complete absence of a government policy.
If Shaked and Levin would go to the trouble of elaborating on the policy issues that have been stuck or delayed due to the activities of gatekeepers, the list would include subjects such as backhanded ways of illegally gaining control over lands privately owned by Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, the treatment of African refugees contrary to international law, passing laws in the Knesset in a manner contrary to due procedure and efforts to weaken the Supreme Court. They could also point out how the government occasionally acts to circumvent (or tries to circumvent) the gatekeepers, such as in the case of the natural gas outline, which took better care of the interests of the gas companies than of the Israeli public.
I’m not saying that the gatekeepers are always right, or that the system cannot be improved. However, it should be remembered that the basic job of the gatekeepers in democracies is to ensure that the government acts within the limits of the law and constitutional principles. Of course, one can do away with gatekeepers altogether, and pooh-pooh the rule of law, but that would mean throwing out of the window the democratic principles on which the Israeli system of government is based. True, Shaked and Levin would like to do away with some of the principles I am referring to by means of legislation, but it should be noted that the mere fact that something is decided by a majority, does not necessarily make it democratic. Many a dictatorship came to power on the basis of legislation passed by a legitimate parliamentary majority.
But to return to the issue of political appointments and governability, it should be noted that replacing senior civil servants with close associates and henchmen might on the surface “improve governability” by enabling ministers to more easily do as they please, but it does not take into consideration the fact that the problem of governability in Israel is not the result of the gatekeepers doing their job.
The main problem with governability in Israel is that Israel’s coalition governments are becoming increasingly incoherent and their members are increasingly inclined to put the interests of their electoral base before those of the state as a whole. In other words, there is a serious erosion in true mamlachtiyut (statism) and the ministers seem to be busy promoting sectorial interests, frequently at cross-purposes with the interests promoted by other ministers.
In other words, one of the main problems with governability in Israel has to do with the multiplicity of conflicting political agendas and the fact that in Netanyahu’s last three governments instead of trying to promote compromise and true, overall consociationalism (defined as “a stable democratic system in deeply divided societies that is based on power sharing between elites from different social groups”), there is an inclination to concentrate on divisive issues and contention. Unfortunately, Netanyahu is not only partial to this situation, but from time to time even lends it a helping hand.
A little more unity would go a long way to solving Israel’s governability problems.