Forget about quick-fix reforms in Israel
Any system, including ours, needs occasional reform, but we should avoid the oversell and the irresponsible campaigns that promise a quick and total fix via an extreme makeover.
The social issue was last summer's news, and female exclusion topped the charts two months ago. However, judging by the recent comments of such diverse political figures as Yair Lapid, Meir Dagan (last week) and Avigdor Lieberman (at a full-blown conference on the subject this week at the Knesset), overhauling the Israeli political system is the current flavor of the month.
The issue is a useful one for these gentlemen for the following reasons: It never hurts to be considered the great political reformer. It allows you to run against the system and "the politicians," whose faults are constantly chronicled by the media. Additionally, who could conceivably be opposed to a better and more efficient system of government?
The issue is tailor-made for those who seek to blur their political identity regarding questions of peace and borders, or economic liberalism versus social welfare, and thus avoid alienating significant chunks of the electorate.
While Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party are often considered part of the Israeli nationalist camp, Lieberman has frequently maneuvered to soften his profile. For example he has announced a willingness to evacuate his own home in the community of Nokdim in exchange for genuine peace. He was willing to belong briefly to the Olmert government. His Knesset faction includes people like MK Sofa Landver, who started on the political left. After the 2009 election, Lieberman sat on the fence for a while and let Kadima and the Likud woo him, while claiming that his ultimate goal was a national unity government dedicated to changing the electoral system to a presidential one.
For Lapid, advocacy of a presidential system establishes a link with the legacy of his late father, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, the hammerer of Haredim. A fixed-term presidential system with no need for coalitions to form a government, or sustain it, once in place, would presumably marginalize special-interest parties, such as Shas, which, according to Lapid the younger, have us all under their thumb.
A system overhaul also appeals to the Israeli penchant for novelty. We have never tried a presidential system, but with our admiration for things American, there is always a first time.
Dagan, for his part, advocates a German-style system, with half the parliament elected in single-member districts, that will insulate the prime minister - while he is deciding on big issues (like Iran or peace ) - from the "extortions" of minor parties, although it is not clear whether Dagan fears they will merely deflect the premier's concentration or actually seek concessions.
The debate over the efficacy and equitability of political systems, together with the proper trade-off between these two qualities, is timeless and undecided; otherwise, all countries would employ the same system. There are legitimate arguments in favor of every political system, including the one currently in place here. However, those who present either the presidential system or the German system as a cure-all are guilty of misrepresentation.
First of all, no advocate of a presidential system would openly call for dispensing with a legislative or judicial branch in order to concentrate all powers in the president's hands. And most "goo goos" - good government reformers, as they were derisively referred to in Progressive-era America - favor an activist Israeli supreme court, even though a case can be made that Israel's over-judicialization has hamstrung the executive more than a nettlesome Knesset.
If an Israeli president does not control the Knesset, he will still have to negotiate with the parties there, which can pass or torpedo his legislation. Running against the legislative branch may be an option for an election year, as with Harry Truman and perhaps Barack Obama; it is not recommended for an entire term of office.
The French presidential system of the Fifth Republic was set up precisely to maximize presidential power, under the assumption, since proven mistaken, that the party controlling the Elysee Palace would also have a parliamentary majority. De Gaulle, who expressed the same animus toward the parties as Lapid and Dagan, castrated the National Assembly and created an imperial presidency - an instance of overkill, since corrected. However, even in cases where the French president commanded a compliant majority in the National Assembly, things did not always go his way. Nicolas Sarkozy is currently campaigning by promising reforms that he also promised to institute in his 2007 campaign. He, like his predecessor Jacques Chirac, occupied a powerful presidency, and commanded a solid parliamentary majority. Why then isn't France in better shape than it was in 2002?
We have already embraced Germany's "constructive" no-confidence vote, requiring a viable alternative in the wings before a government can be toppled (all but removing the threat of a no-confidence motion), but we don't yet have the Federal Republic's high 5 percent electoral threshold. And even that (and Dagan would settle for 3 percent) has not prevented the German party system evolution from a two-and-a-half-party system into one with five parties, with its coalition formation complications. Members of Chancellor Merkel's CDU accused their junior coalition partner the FDP of "extortion" this week. So what have we gained, if the touted German model is also subject to the demands of minor coalition parties?
Any system, including ours, needs occasional reform, but we should avoid the oversell and the irresponsible campaigns that promise a quick and total fix via an extreme makeover. The time and effort would be better invested in holding our elected officials and ourselves to higher standards.
Dr. Amiel Ungar writes a monthly column in Haaretz English Edition.