Separate policy from politics

Israel needs to separate policy from politics to enhance national security, to prevent a collapse of democracy, to retain judicial integrity and to enhance the identity of Judaism and more. The reason is no more and no less a result of elected politicians who are distracted from formulating sound policy because politics is their prime attention.

The catalyst for separating policy and politics is the investigations into prominent people in Israel including senior politicians among who is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These have been a test of the country’s resilience.

With the expectation that the government would fall and that a disgraced Likud wouldn’t win another election, politicians from all parties seized the opportunity to advance aggressive agendas that cater primarily to their constituencies.

The frantic political power play has exposed the faults within Israel’s political system, particularly the way in which it accommodates reckless behavior that serve narrow partisan goals rather than broad, national objectives. That means politicians are not focusing on policy for all citizens and the state. They are focusing on being re-elected to the Knesset and more so as being the ruling party.

Such domestic disarray and instability is showing the vulnerabilities not the least in delaying reactions or initiatives in crucial national security agenda. A solution is to better insulate policy from politics.

If policy is not separated from politics then democracy will also suffer. The Judges and law courts are a safety mechanism, a check and control measure on legislators. This is not respected by politicians who have been pushing forward legislation solely to suit their personal agenda. The moves to pass a bill that would limit the capacity of Israel’s Supreme Court to nullify laws it deems problematic will not only impact detrimentally on democracy but could also have severe repercussions for Israel’s national security in the invocation of the principle of complementarity to assert jurisdiction in allegations against Israel.

Some of the politics is not going to result in a policy to deal with the situation favorable to all if any. One example is politicians aka legislators in the Knesset who appear to believe that tinkering with Judaism’s role in the public life of the Jewish state will get them more votes in an election. The current attempt is the proposed Nation-State Bill, a piece of legislation that would deem Israel a “Jewish state with a democratic regime” as opposed to a “Jewish and democratic state.” Such political maneuvering will end in a policy that is “jack of all trades and master of none” that means no one is likely to feel satisfied with the result. Another example is immigrants from Africa. Deal were reached, and then reneged.

Israel needs to separate policy from politics. This is not going to be easy for Israel’s parliamentary democracy has always had a coalition government. This encourages politicians including the Prime Minister to constantly choose between what’s good for the country and what’s good for their political survival. It’s not simply enough to capture the most votes at an election.

Parties in the ruling coalition must always trade spoils in order to both attain and maintain power. The trading of politics for policy commences when parties court each other to form the coalition and continue because the Prime Minister’s continued survival in office depends on keeping the coalition members satisfied. Cabinet Ministers are appointed by virtue of their party affiliation rather than their expertise. So the weakest link in government is the strongest controller.

A solution to leave policy to the professionals in the civil service and politics to the elected politicians is not a solution as it would harm democracy. Another reason is that there are also challenges to professionalism compounded by the marginalization of more entrenched government units. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is notoriously underfunded and understaffed. Other ministries lack long-term planning units.

Nevertheless something has to be done to better shield policy from politics for the situation is precarious. Politicians face little resistance to implementing their personal priorities at the expense of sound policy. The citizen and the state suffer as a consequence.

One proposition could be the American cabinet system where its members are not elected legislators so they are occupied with less parochial concerns such as re-election. Another is to raise the electoral threshold as the current low bar guarantees the assembly of a splintered coalition that is distracted by its need to satisfy a multiplicity of demands. Smaller parties would need to consolidate. Setting prime ministerial term limits is another tactic worth contemplating.

Separating politics from policy and more pertinently making sure that politicians will have less ability, obligation, and temptation to play politics, will no doubt result in Israel’s policies being sounder, more acceptable to all, more durable and more implementable.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.
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