The political maneuvering of the past few weeks in the Knesset climaxed in the temporarily aborted attempt to break up of the Kadima party. In the end, it also cemented the failure of the government to come up with a plan to draft the Ultra-Orthodox. This bout of serial maneuvers brought home, once again, just how broken the Israeli political system really is.
Of course, these political manuevers are nothing new. Over 35 years ago I was involved with “Dash”. The Dash party, headed by Yigal Yadin, ran on a platform calling for electoral reform, and sought to shape a new form of government. Alas, Dash only garnered 15 Knesset votes. In the end, the party’s only accomplishment was ending the Labor party’s monopoly on power.
Since Dash, there has not been a serious attempt to bring about fundamental reform of the Israel’s system of government. Frankly, at this point, most people believe it cannot happen. They are probably right. Still, one way or another, it must happen. Somehow we have managed to muddle through with our current system of government until now. Nevertheless, it is hard to see how the present system can continue to meet even the most basic challengers we face. Our politicians are seemingly less capable, and more corrupt. Furthermore, our government is utterly incapable of even making any of the necessary fundamental changes needed to provide for our future.
First, a little history is in order. The Jewish people have proved to be a thoughtful, intelligent nation. Yet, the Israeli political system did not arise from of any thoughtful process. We never convened a Constitutional Convention, as there was in the United States. Our system of governance was inherited from the World Zionist Organization. The W.Z.O was the pre-state organization that helped create the modern State of Israel. However, the governing systems of the W.Z.O, were set up for an international political organization, and not for a modern state. As a result we do not have a constitution, but rather, an inherited system from the WZO, the Turks and the British. We have always been too fearful of the political cost of the writing a constitution. If slave holders and abolitionists could sit and work together in Consitution Hall in Philadelphia, certainly our various cultural and religious factions could do the same.
The political maneuvering of the last few days has not been unique. It has happened many times in the past. The failure to pass any serious replacement for the Tal Law should also not come as a surprise. After all, the state has been funding the Haredi world and its educational systems for decades– despite the fact that this continued funding not in the state’s interest, nor is it a policy supported by the majority of Israelis. The power of the minority in Israel’s political system is unprecedented. It must end in a system that continues to protect the rights of the minority while at the same time ensuring that they do not have undue influence over the majority.
Israel is also one of the only two democracies in the world whose parliament members are not elected, at least partially, by region. As a result, Knesset members are beholden to no one, except their party functionaries. There is no such thing as “constituent services” as they exist in the United States. There is no one to intervene on behalf of the little guy stuck in burecratic hell. It is a system that rewards party activism over talent. How many readers know anything about any of the four Kadima members who tried to leave the party? What great accomplishments prepared them for their terms in the Knesset? I am not trying to scapegoat them. Go through the Knesset list. How many truly accomplished people are there on the entire list?
We have a parliamentary system. It is a parliamentary system made up of coalitions. Therefore, coalition politics determine who will become ministers. Go through our list of ministers. Which ministers have the professional or educational qualifications for the offices they hold? Answer: Only one or two. The Parliamentary system is different from the Executive system employed in the US (where the President appoints his cabinet, with the advice and consent of Congress – and where the overwhelming majority of presidential appointments are qualified in their fields). Even in Parliamentary systems, such as Great Britain, the opposition maintains a shadow government. Thus, those who take over, when there is a change of government, have developed expertise in their fields.
We blame Interior Minister Yishai for the failures of the Fire Department relating to the Carmel Fire. Though, truthfully, it is not his fault. What experience does Eli Yishai possibly have to supervise a fire department? Not to mention, run an Interior ministry? The blame belongs on the system that places unqualified people in roles of power and responsibility that they should never be given.
Bringing about a change will not be easy. On the other hand, since there is no choice but to try, I would like to suggest a plan:
It is time for the Israel to have its first Constitutional Convention. Of course that is much easier said than done. After all, the people in power will not easily give up their power. So, how do we accomplish this? We use the upcoming elections. I used to think that the only possibility for change was to have a party whose only goal was to bring about reform. I fear that will remain impossible to achieve. There are many other items on the average Israeli’s agenda. Israelis are not likely to be willing to “waste” their vote on an unproven party– even for the essential goal of political reform. Such a party would never achieve a majority.
Therefore, instead, we need a National Movement for Electoral Reform. The National Movement for Electoral Reform must demand that the next Knesset pass a law authorizing a Constitutional Convention to redesign our system of government. Once their proposal is done, the new Constitution will go to a national referendum. If passed, a new election would be held, under its new terms.
What would this new movement do? The movement would demand that everyone who runs for Knesset signs a binding contract agreeing to the plan. It needs to place the full weight of public opinion on any MK who does not agree to support the plan. I know this plan is far-fetched and unlikely to succeed. That being said, if anyone has a better idea how to bring about the changes we desperately need, please suggest it.
Last summer there was a sense that anything was possible. There was a feeling that the Israeli people had finally woken from their slumber. Unfortunately, the Protest Movement of last summer has failed. It failed because its goals were too amorphous, and the sad truth that it came up against a political system that could ultimately ignore its demands. If that anger and angst is not redirected quickly to a plan that could bring about real change, the Israeli public could sink further into apathy, and the sense that there is nothing that can be done. Then, only a tragedy (which we can and must avoid) would wake the Israeli public from its slumber.
We live in a very dangerous neighborhood; a neighborhood which has been undergoing far reaching changes. We do not have the luxury of retaining second-rate politicians and a dysfunctional government system any longer. Our challenges, both domestically and internationally, are overwhelming. Alas, our current system of government is not up to the challenge. We can close our eyes and hope it will get better, or we can take the actions that are necessary to bring about real change.
To paraphrase Herzl, “If you will it, it will not be a dream.” We live inside Herzl’s dream. However, unless we take action, that dream will likely become a nightmare.