On Monday, a last-minute compromise saved Israel from yet another election. Just minutes before a 9:00 p.m. deadline, Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to a three-month postponement to present a national budget, without which the Knesset would have dissolved.
What makes governing in Israel so complicated and fragile? Why has no Israeli government in the last three decades lasted a full four years? Why do American governments seem so stable in comparison?
To make some sense of Israel’s political system, The Jewish Press recently spoke with Yisrael Medad, longtime director of education at the Menachem Begin Center in Jerusalem. Medad holds a BA from Yeshiva University and a MA from the Hebrew University in Political Science. He also served as parliamentary assistant to three Knesset Members, most notably Geulah Cohen, for over a dozen years.
The Jewish Press: Why is Israel’s democracy so different than American democracy?
Medad: Israel’s system grew out of the framework adopted over a century ago by the World Zionist Organization. Seeking to give as much representation to as many groups within the Jewish people as possible, Zionist leaders opted for proportional representation whereby almost everyone could participate as the threshold was set unusually low – at one percent [later changed to 3.25 percent].
But that also meant it was difficult for one party to gain a majority, and that led to the political balagan with which we are all familiar. Since almost anyone could reach one percent, you ended up with many small parties and factions.
In the 1950s and until 1977, the Mizrachi and Agudah went with Ben-Gurion. In doing so, the lowest common denominator of allegiance became jobs, positions, and funding for pet institutions. Ideology was to be shouted out in the city squares, in the Knesset plenum, and the party newspapers, but the real business became who could be more corrupted.
That phenomenon leads to unethical and even a jaded view of politics. In 1977, when Begin rose to power with the support of the religious parties, politics became more of a gentleman’s game, but the system itself – with its proliferation of parties – remained unstable.
What do you mean by “unethical”?
Did you know that the representation size of each party in the Zionist Congress also became the measure of who could receive an immigration certificate during the British Mandate years? Not only money, but life and death were a matter of party coalition politics. That type of favoritism continued in many shapes and forms.
Can you cite a more recent example of unethical behavior?
Needless to say, politicians are not always paragons of virtue. There was MK Dr. Gonen Segev, who enabled Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to gain a bare majority in the Knesset to pass the Oslo Accords in 1993.
For the reward of government ministries and cars, he and Alex Goldfard jumped parties to side with Rabin in what was termed the Mitsubishi Affair. I recall Geulah Cohen saying to me that she never thought corrupted personal ethics could reach such a nadir in the Knesset.
Then there is Ehud Barak, who was saved from financial irregularities when Yitzhak Herzog refused to answer police questions in the NPO affair in 2002. And then there are people like Ariel Sharon with the Greek Island Affair and Ehud Olmert with the famous cash envelopes that sent him to prison.
The point is, the system itself – with its maze of over-bloated bureaucracy and coalition bartering – invites temptation and misconduct.
While Israel’s system of government was obviously influenced by the British, it isn’t the same, correct?
Correct. We are not a monarchy, for sure, although the various pressure groups of the leftist elite, such as the media and literary and judicial establishments, like to think they reign supreme over the country and it is they who will crown our next prime minister.
But Israel is one big voting constituency. In England, there are, I think, some 650 districts. That makes for many members of Parliament. We have only 120. But what we don’t have that England does have is local representation.
What do you mean?
A British MP representing farming country pays a lot of attention to cows and corn. In industrial areas, commerce and manufacturing taxes are primary and MPs from those areas focus on those topics. An Israeli MK deals with everything and, unfortunately, thinks he’s an expert in everything.
In Israel, government ministers, such as the ministers of defense, education, and health, are also MKs, which comes with many time-consuming legislative duties. In addition, they are invariably involved in inner-party politics, leaving them very little time to attend to their ministries. In contrast, in the United States, the secretary of state or defense is not allowed to hold another position, allowing him or her to be more focused. That seems far more efficient.
I’m sure it is. The American system is unique in that it is federal and bicameral and is predicated on a real separation of powers. Israel is more like the European system, with which the early Zionists were more familiar.
There are other differences as well. For example, U.S. Supreme Court justices must be approved on the constitutional principle of “advice and consent” whereby the president appoints judges and the Senate approves. This is also the practice for Cabinet secretaries and ambassadors.
In Israel, the Supreme Court until recently was able, essentially, to appoint its own judges as it was guaranteed three members of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which numbered seven in total, making it easy for it to “stack the deck” with their ideological buddies.
Everyone is familiar with some of the weaknesses of Israel’s political system. If so, though, why hasn’t it been changed?
Two attempts were made. Throughout the 1950s, Menachem Begin campaigned for the adoption of a constitution. Until then, a law would be legislated and, later, another law would surpass it. It was a situation in flux.
But when he became prime minister, he realized the religious parties would deny him his goal. I recall attending the meeting held when the Tehiya Party negotiated its coalition agreement with Likud. Begin was very circumspect in his language so as not to awaken criticism and rock the boat.
The second attempt was in 1992 when it was decided the country would vote with two slips – one for prime minister and the second for a party. That introduced a manner of a direct election. Those that promoted such a move assured the nation it would solve all our problems.
It led, however, to an almost disastrous inability to govern. It simply gave overwhelming power to the smaller parties. We barely made it back to what we have now, which unfortunately isn’t a whole lot better.
One other example is Avigdor Lieberman’s initiative to raise the threshold for winning seats in the Knesset in order to keep the Arab parties to a minimum. That backfired. The Arab parties united, became the Joint List, and have 15 seats now, which represents a real threat.
For years, [Lehi head Dr. Israel Eldad] would tell me that “with the help of the Arabs [who continually make errors and attack us] we will yet conquer the world.” I think the current situation is no longer in our favor.
If Israel were to switch to direct elections, are you sure there would be no improvement?
In Israel, one can’t be sure even of death and taxes. But to enable direct elections, we would need to overhaul the entire system. I don’t want to seem too cynical, but I don’t think we have the ability, the wisdom, and the patience to accomplish all that.
There have been many proposals, such as electing 80 MKs by district and the remainder nationally. That would mean redistricting. The U.S. has experienced the negative effects of gerrymandering. Imagine what would happen here, dividing up cities to grant one party an advantage over another.
Why does Israel’s Supreme Court seem to wield more power than its American counterpart?
Since the 1990s, Israel’s Supreme Court has become an activist court, grabbing more and more power due to the nebulous wording of Israel’s Basic Laws of Human Dignity and Liberty and its interpretation of Freedom of Expression. This situation became possible because of a lack of a constitution, as I noted previously.
A constitution defines areas and powers. That doesn’t exist in Israel. The court is the last bastion of the liberal and secular minority elites and they are very well protected by the media. They literally scare and threaten any politician who dares seek to alter their power base. We have witnessed this again and again in the past decade.
If, or when, Israel’s population is majority religious Jews, could the Knesset then vote to adopt Torah law?
That is a very big “if.” Is it possible? Yes. Is it probable? No. Blood would run in the streets.