It's Not Like Changing Socks

It is not clear what the solution is for the many ills of the Israeli system of governance, or even whether there is one at all.

It is not clear what the solution is for the many ills of the Israeli system of governance, or even whether there is one at all. Clearly, though, there is one thing Israel does not need: a revolution in the system of governance. Every revolution is a dangerous gamble, if not a round of Russian roulette. Every revolution is another difficult shake-up of Israeli democracy, and, if it fails, it will increase public mistrust in the system. Small, cautious and measured change is required. And a small change should be followed by a rest. Let's not rush.

In an atmosphere of emergency and loss of trust in the system of governance, the suggestions for far-reaching changes are flourishing. The Megidor Committee is recommending a change to a semi-local constituency electoral system. The coalition is suggesting that a majority of 66 Knesset members (55 percent) be needed to topple the government; that is, to deny the majority in the Knesset its right to determine who the prime minister will be. An even more ridiculous suggestion from the school of Strategic Threats Minister Avigdor Lieberman talks about a transition to a presidential system and a government of technocrats.

It is worth remembering how Israel got into the crisis of governance in which it now finds itself: The direct election of the prime minister revolution led to results contrary to those that were desired. It did not increase the prime minister's ability to govern, but rather led to crippled governments; it did not engender large, strong parties, but rather middle-sized and weak parties. It led to the election of inexperienced and weak ministers, to the destruction of the party establishment and, in the end, to a crisis of trust in the entire political and governmental establishment. One lesson to be learned from the failure of the direct election system is that in politics, there are no magic solutions. A second lesson is that the failure of a revolution in the system is liable to exact a heavy price in public trust. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu articulated this well when he said that a system of governance isn't a pair of socks, and you don't change it every day.

The right revolution has already been carried out by the Knesset: It has gone back to the previous system with slight changes (a majority of 61 Knesset members is necessary to topple the prime minister). Are additional steps needed? Definitely. Small and measured steps. Here is an example.

There is broad agreement in the Knesset in favor of the "Norwegian law," or the substitute MK law. This law (applied in many countries aside from Norway) determines that when a member of parliament is appointed a minister, he leaves the parliament and someone else substitutes for him. Upon leaving the government, he returns to parliament, and the substitute leaves.

The advantages of the Norwegian law are clear. Today about one-quarter of the Knesset manpower is "nationalized" for the benefit of the executive authority. This very much weakens the legislative authority's work and review capability. The 30 substitutes would strengthen not only the Knesset but also the government because of the clear interest they would have in the government's continuing to exist. This would ensure coalition discipline on many issues and would extend any coalition's life expectancy. And most important: This is an amendment, not a revolution.

A mixed (semi-constituency) election system, which the Megidor Committee is recommending, is supposed to strengthen the connection between the Knesset members and the voters. But it is impossible and unnecessary to hold local constituency elections in Israel. Local constituency elections will further amplify the alienation the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs feel toward the political system and will leave them feeling that someone is trying to rob them of their political power. To strengthen the connection between MKs and the voters, there is no need for local constituency elections. It is possible, for example, to obligate every elected representative to spend at least four hours a week on receiving the public. In the field, not at the Knesset. Ultra-Orthodox Knesset members do this on a regular basis, even though they don't face primaries.

The main problem with the discussion of the system of governance is the assumption that every problem can be solved. As long as the country is torn apart politically, inevitably it will suffer instability and inefficiency. One can try to improve the situation and to minimize damages, but there is no certainty that it is possible to solve the problems. Better to stay with a certain amount of instability and inefficiency than to gamble the whole kitty. It is not certain that democracy in Israel can survive another adventure.