Think about it: A problem of norms

The problem is a complete divide within the nation, where half the nation is on one side, and half the nation is on the other side.

Benjamin Netanyahu at Knesset disperal vote (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Benjamin Netanyahu at Knesset disperal vote
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The problem is a complete divide within the nation, where half the nation is on one side, and half the nation is on the other side, and in the final reckoning the divide leads to efforts by both the large parties to try to draw one or two Knesset members from one side to the other, with ideological arguments, true or false. As long as this situation doesn’t change, only the integrity of the Knesset members, who were elected in democratic elections, can solve the problem. Neither a change in the electoral system nor a change in the system of government will solve this problem.”
The above quote is from a speech given in the Knesset by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) on July 3, 1990 – almost 25 years ago. The issue under debate was an amendment to Basic Law: the Knesset, which added article 6a to the law. Article 6a states: “A member of the Knesset who left his parliamentary group, and did not resign from his office soon after his leaving, shall not be included in the elections to the following Knesset, in a list of candidates submitted by a party that was represented by a parliamentary group in the outgoing Knesset.”
A year later, the Law for the Direct Election of the Prime Minister was passed.
These constitutional changes came as a reaction to the political events of March-June 1990. On March 15, the Labor Party walked out of Yitzhak Shamir’s national unity government, and brought it down by means of a vote of no-confidence – the only time an Israeli government has been brought down in this way.
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Following these events, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres tried to form a government, but failed, even though he made great efforts to get several MKs from the opposite side of the political spectrum to join the government he was trying to form.
On June 11, Shamir managed to form a narrow government, which included 21 ministers and over 12 (!) deputy ministers (one of them was Benjamin Netanyahu, another was Ephraim Gur, who defected from the Labor Party, and a third was Eliezer Mizrahi, who defected from Agudat Yisrael upon the orders of the Lubavitcher Rabbi), and was supported in the first instance by 62 MKs. Inter alia, the 62 included “the Party for Advancing the Zionist Idea” – made up of five MKs who had broken away from the Likud in February 1990, and headed by MK Yitzhak Moda’i – which demanded the Finance Ministry, and a bank guarantee that Shamir would keep all his promises, in return for joining the Shamir government.
The amendment to Basic Law: the Knesset, and the direct election of the prime minister, were designed to prevent a future occurrence of this highly embarrassing sequence of events.
As is well known, while the amendment of Basic Law: the Knesset has survived, and has dealt with only partial success with the phenomenon of MKs who defect from their parliamentary groups for personal benefit rather than ideological principles, the direct election of the prime minister brought about more problems than benefits, and was done away with in 2001.
Which brings us to the current situation, in which Netanyahu, in search of a government more to his liking, broke up his third government, which led to new elections, following which he managed – by the skin of his teeth – to form a narrow government supported by 61 MKs, with 21 ministers (for the time being) and an as-yet unknown number of deputy ministers.
To date Netanyahu has not tried to entice any MKs from opposition parties to join his government. However, it has been suggested that if he doesn’t manage to convince Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman to join his government, and thus raise support to 67 seats, he might try to entice at least two members of Liberman’s party to defect, though he will have to get around article 6a of Basic Law: the Knesset. It cannot be ruled out that he will try to amend the law to serve his purposes, just as he did last week with Basic Law: the Government regarding the size of the government.
However, the problem that remains, which is the outgrowth of the situation described by Gafni, is that some of the demands made by the potential Coalition partners were scandalous – especially those made by the Bayit Yehudi, such as that each of its MKs should receive NIS 20 million of public funds to dispense as he might see fit, without the Knesset being able to exercise effective supervision.
This is especially disturbing in light of the current so-called Yisrael Beytenu scandal, allegedly involving serious corruption in the dispensation of coalition funds.
Equally scandalous was the fact that Netanyahu actually gave in to most of these demands without much of a fight – all for the sake of his own political survival. Back in the July 1990 Knesset debate, MK Haim Korfu, who was Likud chairman of the House Committee at the time, addressed this problem: “I believe that the source of the phenomena [we are dealing with] has a single origin, which is ‘government at any price’...This is the true origin, which must be stopped – which must be uprooted.”
As was the case in 1990 so today what is involved, beyond the political reality of a split down the middle among the citizens of the state, is an absence of integrity and norms, rather than “the system” as such.
The example of Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett is especially disturbing.
A year ago Bennett spoke out categorically against coalition funds on principle, which didn’t stop him demanding the most outrageous coalition funds ever demanded by anyone in Israel just over a week ago.
Incidentally, the phenomenon of funds allocated to members of parliament for them to dispense in their constituencies or among their voters is not unique to Israel. In the US there are earmarks, and in France there are “parliamentary allocations.” However, these are not funds that are allocated only to a select group of members from the government side, but to all MPs – from the opposition as well, and the sums involved are relatively modest. Needless to say, transparency and accountability must be involved in the process.
Netanyahu has already called for changes in the system of government to prevent the future recurrence of what he has just undergone. However, it is not clear how his proposal that in future the task of forming a new government should be assigned to the head of the largest parliamentary group will solve the problem.
The Likud is the largest parliamentary group. So what good did that do? The problem remains as described by Gafni 25 years ago, namely that since the Six Day War, the citizens of Israel are divided down the middle over the future of the territories occupied in 1967, and our relations with the Palestinians, and that many of Israel’s politicians have a serious problem in terms of integrity and norms of behavior.
Until such time as a permanent settlement is worked out between ourselves and our neighbors, and until such time as integrity and basic democratic norms are ingrained in our politicians on both sides of the political divide, nothing is likely to change.
So can Netanyahu personally be absolved from responsibility for the current mess? Yisrael Beytenu leader Liberman doesn’t agree. He claims that the reasons that he decided to stay out of the new government all have to do with Netanyahu’s poor human relations, and his total lack of principles and scruples. In other words, according to Liberman Netanyahu is part of the problem, not the solution.
The writer is a political scientist, and a retired Knesset employee