Reforming the government…for the worse

 

Naomi Chazan

With all the attention devoted to economic and security issues since the installation of the present government, there is a very real danger that some of its most important moves will proceed below the public radar. Such is the case with the details of the much-touted governmental reform that it intends to introduce immediately upon the reconvening of the Knesset following the spring recess. Under the guise of a much-needed revamping of the governmental system, it will attempt to pass several changes that at best are trivial and, at worst, extremely harmful to Israel’s fragile democracy.

 

There is little doubt that after sixty-five years, Israel’s democratic framework is in need of retuning. Too many citizens lack confidence in its key institutions (especially the Knesset and the executive branch); its electoral system encourages a multiplicity of parties, many of a sectarian nature; the accountability of elected officials to their voters is virtually non-existent; the commitment to the rule of law is sporadic at best; essential civil rights such as freedom of speech, of association and of religion have yet to be entrenched; minorities and underprivileged groups lack significant protection; avenues for civic engagement are underdeveloped; and the effectiveness and stability of the system is limited. Several major attempts to propose comprehensive reforms in recent years (the Presidential Commission on Governmental Reform headed by Professor Menachem Magidor, the work of the Israeli Democracy Institute summarized in Reforming Israel’s Political System, the recommendations of CECI: The Center for Empowerment of Citizens in Israel, and the establishment of several non-governmental organizations to promote governmental change) have produced a myriad of suggestions with absoutely no tangible results.

 

The call for “changing the system,” so prominent during the past year, alluded to political as well as to economic reform. Avigdor Lieberman, Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and Naftali Bennett placed this issue high on their list of priorities during the recent electoral campaign. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the topic appears in the basic policy guidelines of the newly-constituted government: “the government will work towards altering the system of government.” The rationale provided, however, is perhaps even more important than the stated intent – the partners of the new coalition pledge themselves to promote such changes “in order to increase governability and governmental stability.” Clearly, their prime interest lies in reinforcing their own capabilities and hence their durability, but not necessarily in improving the viability of Israel’s democratic order.

 

This is why the chapter on “The System of Government, Governability, Democracy and the Rule of Law” in the coalition agreements deals almost exclusively with measures that will fortify the capacities of the executive branch and totally ignores changes that might contribute to the country’s democratic character or to refining norms of political behavior (the terms “democracy” or “rule of law” are notably absent in the concrete suggestions). This piecemeal approach to political reform runs the risk of further skewing Israel’s system in favor of the government and robbing its already disgruntled citizenry of the ability to influence key decisions affecting their lives and their future.

 

The detailed changes are already being drafted into legislative proposals. The first – and the one on which there is widespread agreement – relates to reducing the size of the government to 18 ministers (excluding the prime minister) in any future government and to no more than four deputy ministers. To avoid changes in this law (as happened in 1999), a preferential majority of 70 members of Knesset will be required to make any amendments. Such a move will, no doubt, go some way towards restoring the public’s faith in government (seriously eroded by an over-bloated executive with a plethora of ministers devoid of clear tasks). On its own, however, it will do little to enhance the capacities of the system.

 

The second set of changes is aimed entirely at augmenting governmental stability. A full constructive no-confidence bill (just the terminology is enough to dull the senses of the uninitiated) will ensure that no government can fall in a no-confidence vote unless an alternative government is supported by 65 members of the Knesset. In real terms this means that there will be no possibility of toppling a government through a motion of no-confidence (which happened only once in Israel’s history) and that the government can safely ignore what it considers to be annoying opposition efforts in this regard. To press home the point, the right of the prime minister to disperse the Knesset (and thus avoid the ignominy of being ousted by parliament) will be explicitly entrenched. It is worthwhile recalling, in this context, that governmental endurance is not always the best indicator of political stability: all too often, the inability to replace ineffective and unpopular governments causes widespread unrest and contributes to overall alienation from the system.

 

The third group of suggested reforms fortifies the government at the expense of the Knesset. The power of the purse – one of the key tools by which parliaments check executive activity – will be effectively curtailed by a new provision that will allow the government to postpone presenting a budget for approval at the beginning of the fiscal year while continuing to operate on a monthly basis in accordance with the previous budget. Such an arrangement (a variation on the now debunked two-year budget employed during the past four years) provides for the ongoing operation of the administration by curtailing continuous scrutiny by the legislature – a move virtually without precedent in the democratic world.

 

In addition, the government plans to further limit parliamentary initiatives by requiring that any private member bill which involves an expenditure of over 50 million shekels must secure the support of an absolute majority of the house. Even in an era of inflation in legislative proposals, it is not always wise to artificially limit the activities of members of Knesset, especially when, in the past, these have been responsible for some of Israel’s most significant social and economic reforms.

 

When taken together, these measures weaken the Knesset and undermine Israel’s system of checks and balances so critical to the smooth functioning of its parliamentary democracy. By reducing the ability of the Knesset to monitor the government (the key function of contemporary parliaments) and to make laws (a power given by definition to the legislature), the enactment of these proposals will wreak real damage on the existing institutional structure.

 

The final changes address the electoral system (and by implication the party map). Next month the government plans to introduce an amendment which will set a four percent threshold for entry to the Knesset (the current threshold is two percent). The purpose of this bill is to reduce the number of parties elected to the Knesset, increase the size of the larger parties and, by inducing shifts in voter behavior, decrease the amount of votes lost to lists which do not pass the threshold. While this move will probably mean that fewer than the current average of twelve parties will be elected, the principle of representation that has served Israel so well in the past – and makes its parliament the most representative and inclusive in the democratic world – will be compromised. Just to make sure that smaller parties that may not pass the threshold do not form temporary electoral alliances and then split immediately after elections, a subsidiary bill is planned that will withhold party funding from such breakaway lists.

 

Raising the threshold is an artificial mechanism that controls the number of parties in any given parliament. Using this instrument, however, requires caution. Under any circumstances, there are five key blocs in Israel: right, center, left, ultra-orthodox and Arabs. Forcing amalgamation not only runs the risk of eliminating ideological parties and disempowering weaker groups, it may also freeze these broad divisions by reducing the diversity inherent in these groupings, thus making coalition construction and maintenance less feasible. It will also, unquestionably, reduce the accountability of elected officials to their voters. Of all the suggestions related to electoral reform, this may be the easiest to pass, but it is also the least likely to increase governability or encourage policy innovation. Serious changes in the electoral system are indeed in order, but these involve some form of district elections and the introduction of personal preferences on the ballot to eliminate the corruption associated with primaries, strengthen the party system and enhance accountability.

 

Governmental reform is an important and delicate matter. Carrying out reforms in a selective manner designed to bolster the executive and the parties in power may yet prove to be a boomerang with untold consequences. None of the proposals under consideration really address democratic resilience: they do not deal with accountability, checks and balances, civil rights, minority protection or commitment to the rule of law. Neither will they bring about much-needed policy change.

 

The eve of Israel’s sixty-fifth Independence Day offers an opportune moment to grapple with the political adjustments necessary to bolster its democratic vibrancy. This could best be done by establishing an expert commission that will consider the broad spectrum of reforms conducive to bringing its governmental system in line with the needs of the twenty-first century and by agreeing a priori to adopt its recommendations.