The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy

18-Sep-2006

How Some Nations Empower Their People: Israel Disenfranchises Them—Part II

Filed under: Democratic MethodsCabinet/Executive — eidelberg @ 8:27 pm

Edited transcript of the Eidelberg Report, Israel National Radio, September 18, 2006.

As indicated in Part I, members of Israel’s Knesset are not individually elected by or accountable to the people in constituency elections. This enables Knesset members to ignore public opinion with impunity. That’s what 23 Likud MKs did when they voted for Sharon’s Labor-inspired policy of “disengagement,” a policy rejected by a vast majority of the people in the 2003 election.

This policy—Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza —led to the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, as recently confirmed by former Chief of General Staff Moshe Yaalon.

Now it’s easy to blame Israel’s fiasco in that war on the flawed character of Israel’s political elites. But if we consider how disengagement via the Evacuation Law was passed, the war would not have occurred were it not for the flawed character of Israel’s system of governance—a system that virtually disenfranchises the Jewish people. Let’s probe a little deeper.

Have you ever heard of a democracy in which a political party that never competed in an election gained control of the government? That’s exactly what happened when Sharon split off from the Likud and formed the Kadima party in 2004.

And then, in the March 2005 election, even though Kadima won only 22% of the votes, that was enough to make Ehud Olmert prime minister. But Olmert then had to form a coalition government with the Labor Party, which had won 15% of the votes—and that’s how Labor chairman Amir Peretz became Israel’s Defense Minister.

This combination of incompetents is a direct consequence of Israel’s parliamentary system, a system that produces multi-party cabinet government. Israel needs to replace this system with Presidential executive government. In other words, Israel needs a unitary Executive. Multi-party cabinet government produces a plural Executive, which makes it virtually impossible to pursue coherent and resolute national policies.

The average duration of multi-party cabinet government in Israel is less than two years. Such ephemeral governments cannot pursue long-range national policies. We need a Presidential system with a fixed four-year, renewable term of office. This will promote political stability and national unity. National unity should be the constant concern of politicians in a country like Israel, surrounded as it is by hostile Arab regimes and divided within by a disloyal Arab population.

The most powerful argument against coalition cabinet government or plurality in the Executive was set forth by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers. To paraphrase Hamilton:

plurality in the Executive tends to conceal faults and destroy responsibility. It often becomes impossible to determine whom to blame or punish for a pernicious measure, or series of pernicious measures, so that the public is left in suspense about the real author. Even though we may clearly see upon the whole that there has been mismanagement, the circumstances which may have led to any national misfortune are sometimes so complicated where there are several officials who may have had different functions, it may be impracticable to determine who is responsible for the evil or mismanagement.

This clearly describes the confusion that surrounded the Yom Kippur War and the question of who in the Golda Meir cabinet was most responsible for that disaster. The same may be said of the Oslo Agreement, which seems to have been concocted by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and imposed on Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the cabinet as a fait accompli.

And now, individuals across the political spectrum are calling for a national commission of inquiry into Israel’s fiasco in Lebanon. Such a commission will only focus on the failings of various officials and obscure the failings of the political SYSTEM—a system that renders the people of Israel powerless. Multi-party cabinet government makes parties powerful and the people impotent.

This system, says Hamilton, tends to deprive the people of the two greatest securities they can have for the faithful exercise of any delegated power: first, the restraints of public opinion. These restraints lose their efficacy when the censure for bad policies is divided among several officials, or because of the uncertainty on whom censure ought to fall. Secondly, the people are deprived of the opportunity of discovering with facility and clearness the misconduct of the persons they trust, either to remove them from office or to render them liable for legal punishment.

Now let’s anticipate and refute arguments made against presidential versus parliamentary government. Some political scientists contend that, given the president’s fixed term of office, the political process becomes broken into discontinuous, rigidly determined periods without the possibility of continuous readjustments as political, social, and economic events may require. It can be shown, however, that most governments under parliamentary systems run their allotted tenure of four years and are equally discontinuous.

Conversely, it could be argued that presidentialism reduces the uncertainties and unpredictability inherent in parliamentary governments. Parliamentary systems usually involve a large number of parties whose leaders and rank-and-file legislators often undergo changing loyalties and realignments. Enough to mention Sharon’s zigzags. A country like Israel, surrounded by hostile dictatorships, requires predictable executive power, hence presidential government.

As already indicated, presidentialism also provides accountability and identifiability. The voter knows who he or she is voting for and who will govern should this candidate win. This may also be true in parliamentary regimes consisting of only a few parties with highly visible leaders. But it is certainly not true in a multiparty system like Israel’s where no party can expect to gain an absolute majority, in which case the voter does not even know which parties will form a governing coalition.

Critics of presidentialism also refer to the phenomenon of “grid-lock,” when the legislature is dominated by a party other than that of the President. Studies indicate, however, that, “grid-lock” in the United States is very much a myth. Politicians of both major parties know that the public’s business must be done if they are to remain in office, so that compromise between President and Congress is the rule.

On the other hand, Israel’s current system of multiparty cabinet government often leads to paralysis, and can hardly be deemed preferable to America’s presidential system, which has nurtured the wealthiest country in the world.

There is, however, one significant advantage of parliamentary systems: they often have a well-known shadow government, whereas a president-elect starts naming a cabinet only after his election. Unfortunately, this advantage of parliamentary systems does not apply to Israel, whose fragmented parliament yields a cabinet consisting of dissonant parties.

So, when all is said and done, a presidential system in Israel is preferable to a parliamentary system.