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Israel’s political system needs reform

Successes in the economy, finance, science and technology, defense and security are offset by a dysfunctional political system.

I have on numerous occasions written and spoken about a curious dichotomy in Israeli society. Great successes in the realms of the economy, finance, science and technology, defense and security, are offset by a dysfunctional political system and serious social problems involving class, ethnicity, religion, corruption and organized crime.

The most recent issue of the “Jerusalem Report”, with a long special section sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) dedicated to a discussion of politics in Israel, has emboldened me to comment on what seem to me to be the most important political reforms which should be considered by the Israeli public.

Although it may seem to some that an American-Israeli should consider keeping silent on the issue, given the surrealistic developments currently plaguing the American political system, I will courageously (or foolishly) forge ahead.

There are three issues that I wish to tackle, all related to the fact that Israel does not have a constitution, which as a consequence cannot be appealed to for the resolution of basic political disputes. I am perfectly aware of why Israel does not have a constitution and I am not arguing that it should have one (after all, the United Kingdom also does not have a constitution and does not seem to miss it). Why is that important? Because it means that one pillar of legitimacy of the political system is missing. It would not be realistic to hope that this lack can be filled in the foreseeable future, so that any reform suggestion must take that into account.

From the standpoint of the legislative branch, the Knesset, the deficiencies are all too obvious and have been extensively reviewed: instability of coalition governments, lack of party discipline, inordinate influence exerted by specific groups organized into parties, and so on. I would like to focus my suggestions on something much less commonly referred to – namely the fact that the members of the Knesset do not represent people – they represent parties. Choice of the Knesset members is entirely in the hands of the party bosses and they, in turn, not only engage in endless fratricidal warfare over controlling the party but find it difficult to fulfill the role of a coalition member with responsibilities to the whole of society and not just a faction.

The solution which I would propose for discussion would be to have two-thirds of the Knesset members (80) elected in single-member districts, who would then represent the populations of the districts in which they run for election as well as their party, with the other third (40) elected proportionately from party lists depending on the percentage of the total vote earned by each party. As at present, a party unable to reach a certain percentage of the popular vote would have no proportional members.

This reform or something similar would have two major benefits over either an entirely proportional system as now or an entirely single-member district system as in the US and the UK. The individual voters and their regional and local interests would be represented in Jerusalem while group interests and ideologies would also be represented.

As to the executive branch, I would suggest a reform which would turn the present weak president, strong prime minister, on its head. In France, Peru and some other countries, the CEO of the country is the president, who as head of state deals with major overall public policy issues and the prime minister is the chief operating officer (COO), charged with policy-making on lesser issues as well as managing the machinery of the government and assuring the effective implementation of policy decisions. The prime minister would be appointed by the president and confirmed by a majority vote of the Knesset and the prime minister in turn would appoint the other ministers, also subject to Knesset approval.

In the UK such a system is unnecessary because the head of state has no real power but can and does effectively fulfill the role of symbolizing the nation because the monarchy has behind it centuries of tradition and history. In the US the president is both head of state and head of government, which leads to a situation where that person is constantly wasting his or her time on less significant management concerns. Israel has no monarchy to symbolize national unity and its presidents (at least since the first one) have been party politicians. Some have fulfilled their symbolic role well and others not, but the loss of the position will have no effect on the efficiency and effectiveness of the government.

Finally, the toughest nut of all – the judicial branch. The Israeli High Court is constantly the object of controversy because it regularly uses what in English jurisprudence would be referred to as “equity” rather than statutory or case law on which to base its decisions, meaning abstract principles of what is “fair” or “just”. Since one person’s fair and just is another person’s unfair and unjust, and since the justices with all due respect cannot have a sufficient command of all issues of whatever nature, they take it upon themselves to pass on issues about which they have little or defective knowledge, as witness the recent decision concerning the natural gas agreement. In effect, the unelected court arrogates to itself the power of ultimate arbiter of the political decisions made by the legislative and executive branches, and thus the ultimate authority of what is supposed to be a democracy.

Here the reform needed is more difficult to implement and more controversial. In the UK, Supreme Court justices like the law lords before them, cannot overturn a law passed by parliament and signed by the monarch. In the US, the Supreme Court can and does overturn laws passed by Congress and signed by the president. But it does so in the name of a written constitution, which is above all other laws. Israel has no constitution, as we have noted, so to declare a law or executive decision “unconstitutional” has no meaning.

Perhaps what might be considered is the passage of a law declaring that the supreme court can only overturn or delay the implementation of a law or executive decision by a super-majority of the justices, and then if a law is passed again by a super-majority of the Knesset the court will have no power to counteract it.

Stay tuned for a discussion of class, religion, ethnicity, crime and corruption.

This article was originally published by Globes.