Abuse of power, democracy and term limits – what Israel can learn from the US

From the television show 5pm on Channel 12 – ‘I think that we need limits to give everyone a chance.’ (Supplied)

Israel today appears trapped in an unprecedented loss of public trust at the same time that it heads into potentially the worst global economic crisis since its inception. Political involvement in public health issues and poor economic planning has led to Covid infection rates amongst the highest in the world and high unemployment (over 850,000 people). Public confidence in the State’s handling of the Pandemic and economy is low. In addition, Israel remains in an unresolved constitutional crisis that was put on hold when Blue and White split and Gantz joined the Unity Government. The criminal allegations and upcoming trial against Prime Minister Netanyahu have the potential to further undermine public trust in the Justice System and State. Public trust, economic confidence and the Rule of Law are being undermined. Israel’s democratic foundations are being eroded.

Haredim are scapegoated and blamed for spreading Covid-19 and disobeying the civil laws of public health. Leftists are blamed for trying to unseat an elected Prime Minister. The extreme right is accused of running a coordinated campaign led by Government Ministers against the Justice System that is really just a part of the Prime Minister’s criminal defense. The message the public gets is that they cannot trust the Government and that “everyone must look after themselves.” (“In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” – Judges vs 21:25)

How can Israel break this vicious cycle of the erosion of public trust and democratic values and move forward?

In the ancient democracies of Greece and Rome, limiting the length of service of elected officials was considered an effective way to restrain potential corruption and abuse of power. The idea of a limited presidential tenure was first discussed when the US Constitution was being drafted. Since the first president, George Washington, US Presidents customarily limited their tenure to two 4-year terms. Only after Franklin D. Roosevelt (president from 1933-45) became the first president to win a third (1940) and fourth (1944) term, did the US Congress propose a formal constitutional limit of two 4-year terms on all future US presidents. Arguing against excessive power and possible abuse of power, the US Congress in March 1947 passed the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution limiting a President to two terms in office.

A similar fixed-term limit should be placed on all serving Israeli Prime Ministers. Any Israeli Prime Minister should not serve more than two terms. By implementing this simple new law the State will regain legitimacy and public trust will be restored. A public petition and/or referendum on the subject would have wide public support across the political spectrum. We must learn from our mistakes and make the necessary changes now. Limiting and dividing power is the best way to avoid abuse of power and regain public trust in the State. Should such a law be implemented, Netanyahu will go down in history as Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister and the Knesset will have rescued Israeli democracy.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was America’s longest serving President and arguably its greatest. He led the US to Superpower status and the establishment of a new World Order. Yet despite his achievements, the US Congress came to understand the potential for the undemocratic abuse of power if a leader stays in office for too long. Israel should learn from the experience of its greatest democratic friend and ally.

With the exception of the Likud and Haredi parties, all major faction leaders in the Knesset have stated they support term limits for the Prime Minister of Israel. Netanyahu also argued in support of term limits in the late 1990’s. Naftali Bennet has said he may back term limits and this would help him gain the support of many Blue and White voters that are disillusioned and disappointed. If he can sway them in the next election then he may become Prime Minister. The Israeli centre cares about abuse of power.

There is wide public support for term limits amongst the public as a way of solving the current impasse. A majority of Knesset members supported the idea after the last election before the creation of the current Unity Government. The current Knesset should not dissolve until a term limit law is passed. The Knesset should use the power bestowed upon it to save Israeli democracy. There is broad public consensus on this issue and it is time for the social protest movement to embrace the idea and for Knesset members to stand up against the abuse of power. Let the Coroana Knesset be remembered not for its failures, but as the Knesset that saved and strengthened Israeli democracy.

If, as seems likely, Netanyahu refuses to honor the rotation agreement with Gantz, then the issue of Term Limits for the Prime Minister of Israel should be back at the top of the agenda of the Knesset and the social protest movement, as it was in March, before the unity Government was formed. At that time there was a clear public and Knesset majority to stop Netanyahu competing in the next election. A Term Limit Law should be tabled and brought into the Knesset immediately.

About the Author
Simon Fink lives in Israel and is originally from Melbourne, Australia. He studied Law Politics and Economics and is interested in public policy. He has worked for governments in Israel and Australia and currently works for a Bank in Israel.