Our Three (or More) Headed Government

By DANIEL TAUBER
Monday Jan 10, 2011 

The three heads of Israel's government, from left to right:
Defense minister Ehud Barak; Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu; and Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman
A HEAD OF GOVERNMENT does not often apologize or distance himself from the remarks and actions of the most senior officials in his government. When he does, someone’s letter of resignation usually follows. In Israel, however, such apologies are becoming routine and no resignations have ensued.

                          
This past March, Netanyahu was forced to apologize to the US for announcement of controversial east-Jerusalem construction by the Interior Ministry, headed by Shas chairman Elie Yishai, during US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel.
In September, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of Yisrael Beteinu,addressed the United Nations, declaring that peace would take decades and would require exchanging territory. The Prime Minister’s Office responded that it was the Prime Minister not Lieberman responsible for conducting negotiations.
In December, Defense Minister and Labor chairman Ehud Barak visited the United States and proposed dividing Jerusalem. Netanyahu, who opposes any division of Jerusalem, then clarified that the Defense Minister’s proposal did not represent official government policy.
Most recently, Lieberman went on a tirade against Turkey (which resulted in backlashfrom Barak). Again. the Prime Minister’s Office stated that the remarks did not represent official government policy.
Playing referee might reap Netanyahu the benefit of appearing as the moderating centrist or enable him to voice unpopular ideas with plausible deniability, but the State of Israel has been repeatedly embarrassed by it. Our government has been made to look like a dysfunctional group of amateur politicians.
Our Defense Minister, whose job is to defend us against physical harm believes his job is to promote the peace process. Our Foreign Minister, whose job is to smooth over tensions with other nations, doesn’t seem to care for our image abroad.
To the world, Israel is not merely two faced, but three faced – with no less than three different leaders representing Israel to the world, each pursuing their own policy.
Not that the Prime Minister is completely to blame. Netanyahu had aimed to form a “national unity” government, the traditional Israeli response to existential threats. The first such government was formed by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and opposition leader Menachem Begin in 1967. Today Israel faces an alarming Iranian threat and it was on this basis that Netanyahu sought to form a national unity government.
Netanyahu was also not given even a plurality of the public’s votes, at least not directly, making a broad coalition necessary for the forming of a stable government.
Kadima refused to join a Likud-led government, but Netanyahu was nevertheless able to form a broad coalition. That coalition included the Likud’s traditional nemesis, the leftist Labor party; Israel Beteinu, seen as running to the Likud’s right; as well as the Haredi Shas party, which often spars with the secularist Israel Beteinu on religious matters. Bringing together these political enemies, however, has resulted only in artificial unity.
ISRAEL'S CHRONIC coalition problems are mostly the result of a governmental system which was more inherited than designed.
As it stands, the public votes for parties, not candidates, in a single nationwide Knesset election. The parties are allotted Knesset seats on a proportional basis. The President selects one party chairman to form a government, which requires support from a majority of the Knesset.
Unlike a district system, where in each district there can be only one winner, in a proportional system, every party wins its fair amount of seats, making it practically impossible for one to emerge with a majority.
Voters’ tendencies to vote not for the party they wish to lead the country, but by sector or on some other basis, exacerbate the problem.
For example, a right-wing Sephardi voter might vote for Shas because Shas will fight for funding for Sephardi institutions or promote other Sephardi interests and will likely join a Likud-led government. (In reality, Shas cabinet members routinely absent themselves from cabinet votes on such issues and Shas has supported left-wing governments).
Israel Beteinu, another example, draws support from the Russian sector. Non-Russians will also vote for Israel Beteinu, believing it will also support a Likud-led government but will have a restraining influence when it comes to concessions. (Lieberman himself, however, has endorsed a two-state solution, repeatedly touts territorial swaps and his party’s ascendency at Likud’s expense necessitated bringing Labor into the coalition).
The result is a multiplicity of parties each with different goals, including maintaining and expanding their own power. Bringing them together in government requires haggling, trading ministries and deciding policies in advance.
A 1992 law aimed at fixing the problem, creating a separate vote for the Prime Minister. This half-fix, however, caused further fracture of the Knesset by enabling voters to choose parties without any concern for the forming of the government. It was repealed in 2001.
But just because this proposal failed, doesn’t mean there are no solutions. After all, it’s not as if proportional voting is the only available democratic system.
Often, parliaments are chosen in district-based votes, in which one party is more likely to gain a majority, as is the case in Britain, where coalitions are not usually necessary to form the government. Adopting a district-system here would also make Knesset members directly accountable to the people instead of their parties. (Note that according to the Israel Democracy Institute’s 2010 Israeli Democracy Index, 48% of Israelis feel they lack any influence over government policy and only 20% feel they have substantial influence).
Such a reform is sorely needed if we hope to have a somewhat uniform and stable executive, able to withstand foreign pressures and positively execute policy instead of merely drifting from crisis to crisis – or in other words, a government for the people and not the parties.

This article was original published as a blog posting for the Jerusalem Post.

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