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How to build a better Israeli democracy

Three big ideas to energize government, starting with term limits to keep the country from turning into a monarchy

During these interim days of Passover, households throughout Israel are enjoying the fruits of the strenuous spring cleaning they carried out on the eve of the holiday. The newly aired rooms, free of unused and malfunctioning items finally (and often regretfully) discarded, contain a renewed brightness and, with it, a promise of revitalization. The public domain, however, has rarely appeared so drab, gloomy, listless and tiresomely predictable. The coalition continues to stumble along, rife with constant bickering and lack of direction; the main opposition party is virtually headless; and the prospects for change appear distressingly limited.

While the desire for political rejuvenation is everywhere apparent, concrete proposals for airing out the system are very limited indeed. These have focused primarily on improbable proposals to alter Israel’s extreme proportional representation, on various schemes to remake the party map, and on a shifting bank of new (and untested) names — mostly with strong military backgrounds and no significant civilian experience — who may be able to replace the flailing and increasingly entrenched leadership of the country.

Most of these suggestions are unrealistic if not far-fetched. Some are utopian and unworkable; others are short-sighted and highly personal in nature. They do not lay the groundwork for systemic changes that would ensure the continuous replenishment of Israeli leaders and, with them, policies and directions. In this era of virtual paralysis, mechanisms are needed that will lay the foundation for a dynamic of refreshing alternatives.

Three ideas, each addressing a different aspect of the problem of governability in the country, might together provide just such a formula to re-energize Israel’s lackadaisical public arena.

Limit those terms

The first, and ostensibly the most simple, relates to leadership rotation. The notion of term limits for elected officials (and especially the prime minister and heads of local authorities) has surfaced periodically over the years. It was first raised seriously in the 1990s, when in the context of the direct election of the prime minister there was an attempt to impose a two-term limit on the highest political office in the country (a move vigorously supported at the time by Benjamin Netanyahu). A similar proposal was tabled in the previous Knesset by members of the coalition and the opposition. The current version, spearheaded by Merav Michaeli of the Zionist Union, is being led by Avigdor Liberman as well as Ayman Odeh, and is supported by more than thirty other members of the current opposition. A vote is scheduled to take place immediately after the Knesset re-convenes following the holiday break.

The establishment of term limits, so common in the democratic world, distinguishes working democracies from present-day autocracies and from past and contemporary monarchies. As the proposed bill explains, “a democracy is not a monarchy; it is imperative that no one individual be allowed to rule for too many years.” Hence, the adoption of term limits entrenches the essential democratic concept of rotation via the ballot box, and formalizes the ingrained aversion to the concentration of power in the hands of any person for a protracted period of time (a process which tends to reduce accountability to the electorate and to allow for widespread corruption and other types of abuse of office). It also assures an ongoing injection of new figures, ideas and styles into the public sphere, thus inserting an ongoing vibrancy into the system.

Israel has adopted term limits in almost every sphere of public life. They apply to the president, the justices of the High Court, all incumbents of the judiciary, the civil service (including those in its highest managerial echelons), the state comptroller, the chief-of-staff and the heads of Israel’s security services (not to speak of most salaried workers, who have a mandatory retirement age of 67). This logic has yet to be extended to elected leaders at the national and local level — mostly because of the resistance of power-holders at any given time.

These individuals have used the absence of limitations on their tenure to instill stringent discipline within their parties, to curtail intra-party dissent, and to further enfeeble the opposition. They have not raised any serious substantive reservations to such a move, except the fear that they themselves will be its first victims — a complaint easily dealt with by postponing the application of such an amendment by one election cycle. Indeed, limiting the tenure of those in power to either two terms or, more practically, to eight years in the highest elected office both locally and on a national scale, depersonalizes political struggles. It thus far outweighs these ephemeral concerns and goes a long way towards ensuring electoral competition and rotation.

Enlarge the Knesset

A second, allied, reform, concerns the enhancement of public performance through the enlargement of the Knesset. An increase in the size of Israel’s parliament — one of the smallest per capita in the democratic world — is essential for the effective conduct of its legislative and oversight functions. The Knesset was established in 1949, when the entire population of Israel barely scraped 800,000; today, the number of citizens is well over 8,000,000 and the complexity of issues has been compounded accordingly. There is simply no way that the sitting members can begin to cope with their workload with any degree of effectiveness. Doubling the number of members would be cost effective in every sense of the term — as numerous blue-ribbon commissions on governmental reform have argued for years.

The main reason such a move has yet to be made derives from the growing public disdain for elected officials (a function of their reduced efficacy over time), further fueled by a reluctance to foot the bill for a new brood of lawmakers. This cyclical pathology has yielded a much weakened legislative branch and further depleted political vibrancy in the country.

Even if the pushback on the need for parliamentary expansion may be difficult to overcome at this time, it might be possible to expand the recently enacted narrow “Norwegian Law” (which provides for the temporary induction of one member of Knesset in each coalition party to replace a serving minister for the duration of his or her tenure) to include all ministers and deputy ministers. This would substantially buttress the ranks of the Knesset, while at the same time freeing all members of the government to concentrate on their jobs. The enhanced performance of the various branches of government would, as time progresses, pave the way for the institutionalization of a larger — and by far more productive — parliament as well as executive.

Add an upper chamber

A third possible measure for the rejuvenation of Israeli politics centers on the improvement of checks and balances. One of the oft-discussed steps in this direction is to consider the establishment of a second, upper chamber, which would serve not only to review governmental actions and prevent flagrant abuses, but also to enable inclusive representation that would cut across increasingly intractable social divisions. It would also provide a channel for the continuous contribution of experienced individuals (many of whom cling to office simply because they still have a lot to give and currently have nowhere to go except home). The addition of such a forum offers a balance of continuity and equilibrium, which at the same time guarantees that new perspectives are constantly injected into the public sphere.

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Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 90th birthday on April 21, two months before she marks her sixty-fourth year on the British throne. Her prime minister, David Cameron, has already announced that he will not seek reelection for a third term. Israel could take a chapter from this oldest of democracies, instituting a system of ingrained change through the fortification of structural checks and balances within an expanded representative body and ensuring continuous opportunities for leadership replacement and hence system reinvigoration. In the spirit of this season of renewal and rededication, now may be the time to consciously defray immobility and consequent decay by seriously contemplating and setting in motion this type of measured public refreshment.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.