Zev Farber

Term Limits for the Prime Minister

“We will limit the prime minister to two terms in office.” This was one of the final points made by Yair Lapid in a Q&A session for English speakers that Yesh Atid ran on Sunday night in Tel Aviv. The line was also on the flier being handed out and it appears on their website as well, in the list of “Cleaning up the political system.”

When he said it at first, I vaguely thought it sounded like a nice idea. The United States did the same with the presidency after FDR became effectively president for life, only leaving office when he died during his fourth term. But in the moment, it didn’t seem like such an important agenda item; it was certainly not what I came there to hear about. But now that I have thought about it some more, especially in the context of Israeli politics, it occurs to me that it might be one of the most important agenda items any party with a chance of taking a leadership role in the Knesset can bind themselves to.

In the past few years, I have heard people from every walk of life say something about how Netanyahu’s remaining in office is “necessary.” For example, after Netanyahu’s reneging on the deal with the Conservative and Reform movements to have an egalitarian space set up by the Wall, many of my friends were frustrated. The same feeling was evident after he reneged on the deal with the UNHCR to deal with the African Migrant crisis. But, when talk of how we need someone else started to stir, I heard “but we need Netanyahu. Israel is unsafe and he is the only one who can do that job.” Someone recently told me a similar story about an Israeli man complaining about how everyone was voting for Bibi, and when asked who he voted for, he answered “Bibi, who else?”

Something is warped about this perspective. Putting aside whether one is satisfied with his leadership or not, the myth of indispensability is a serious distortion of reality. Rarely is anyone indispensable. Prime Minister Netanyahu is a competent politician, who has had successes and failures, and I will leave the verdict of history for the later generations. But there is nothing so unique either about him or about Israel’s current situation, to warrant the “Bibi or we’re sunk” argument.

Netanyahu has not been prime minister consistently since he was first elected in 1996. Twice we have had periods in which someone else took the reins, and whether one believes they were successful or not, we did not sink. Moreover, even those who are supporting his candidacy now must admit that he cannot be prime minister forever; it is hard for me to believe that people making the indispensability argument believe that Israel will only last until he retires. Israel is a strong country filled with talented people. Even if one believes Bibi is the best prime minister in Israel’s history—and I am not of that opinion—others will fill his shoes.

So where does this “Bibi or bust” attitude come from? Here I return to Yesh Atid’s agenda item. I would argue that the feeling of indispensability comes from familiarity. Israel is surrounded by enemies; even our friends could quickly turn into enemies if we ever became weak enough to make such a change in sentiment attractive. Knowing that Israel has been strong for years and Netanyahu has been Prime Minister for years creates a causal link in many of our minds.

This is the classic fallacy of cum hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for “with this, therefore because of this”), since tons of factors go into a countries strength and success. Nevertheless, we may know logically that Israel’s strength during his administration is not an argument for saying that without him, we would not be strong, but emotionally, it makes him feel like the safe bet.

The “who else is there” argument comes from something perhaps subtler—and this is what clinched the term limit argument for me. Talented politicians want to rise to the top; it is only natural. Moreover, even those who don’t have their eyes on the prime minister’s chair want to shine in their respective positions. A good leader, one looking out mainly for the country as opposed to political survival, looks for such talented people, cultivates them, and helps them succeed. After all, it is going to be one of their turns someday.

BUT not if said leader wants to be prime minster for life. One cannot ask talented people to wait forever. Moreover, one cannot “risk” building up talented people, and allowing them to shine in their successes, lest they try to turn such successes into a bid for the top billing. But such an attitude makes it difficult to form solid coalitions, which explains the collapse of what otherwise seemed like a strong government formed in 2013. It also makes it difficult to allow for independent successes, which is what leads to situations when a prime minister is also the foreign minister, defense minister, health minister, and immigration and absorption minister.

Lapid has said on more than one occasion that though he respects many of Netanyahu’s accomplishments, Bibi has been prime minister for too long. One can debate Bibi’s legacy, but the “too-longness” is clear in the hoarding of ministries, the shedding of coalition partners, the financial scandals, and the reneging on important deals to ensure that certain sectors continue to vote for Likud.

Personally, I support the Yesh Atid party and Lapid’s candidacy, but I understand that issues are complicated and many parties have important ideas to contribute. Nevertheless, I think it is important that even voters who support Likud should not do so because of a mythic belief in Bibi the indispensable. Instead, the best thing we can do in the next Knesset is ensure that no prime minister dons the cape of indispensability by pushing all parties to follow Yesh Atid’s example in supporting term limits for Prime Minister.

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He is also the senior editor of and a novelist (writing as Z. I. Farber).
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