The public anger over the conduct of the war in Lebanon, the multiplicity of investigations targeting members of the government and the undermining of the ceremonial institution of the presidency have once again aroused calls for a change in the system of government, and primarily for the magic solution: a presidential system. Just as we imported McDonald's and "A Star is Born" (the Israeli version of "American Idol"), let's copy the White House, too.
The advocates of a presidential system promise a solution to all the ills of the Israeli administration. Instead of coalitions that are destined to fall and a prime minister who is busy with political survival, we will get a strong and stable president, who will be able to make decisions and implement them. Instead of inexperienced party hacks like Amir Peretz and Abraham Hirchson, we will get experienced professionals in the jobs of defense minister and finance minister. Knesset members will be engaged in legislation instead of plots to bring down the government. And in general, the leadership will be preoccupied only with the good of the people and the country rather than with personal advancement and party intrigues.
The Israeli system of government was copied from the Assembly of Elected Representatives of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) during the British Mandate period. Since the system was designed for enlisting the support of a scattered and separated nation, and not for running a country, it emphasizes representation and a multiplicity of opinions rather than operational effectiveness. The result is frequent changes of governments, ministers and directors general, which grant exaggerated power to mid-level officials and enable the coalition to emasculate the prime minister.
These problems have been well known for a long time. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister, already dreamed of a different system, which would free him from coalition considerations. In the spirit of his times, he wanted to copy the British model. In the 1980s, people believed that direct election of the prime minister would break the tie between the Likud and the Alignment (the Labor Party's former name). The experiment failed, and demonstrated that not every organizational change guarantees improved functioning as well. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants to reinforce the government's stability and longs for the factional discipline of his political youth. He is deliberating as to what is preferable - a written constitution, a presidential system, or a combination of proportional and regional elections to the Knesset.
The cure offered by these methods is like a proposal to sell a miracle elixir to the Indians. The political leadership failed to win the support of the public that preferred the Pensioners' Party, and now it is trying to limit the public's freedom of choice with the excuse of "effectiveness." Had Kadima won a sweeping victory, as predicted, the coalition would be stable and subservient. Olmert's relative failure is not a reason for a civic revolution.
A presidential system guarantees a long term of office, but not necessarily stability: Even in America, the president needs the support of Congress, whose members are elected directly, are free of factional discipline and are dependent on pressure groups and donors. President George Bush is no less busy with maintenance than his colleagues in Israel, because without that, his administration would be totally paralyzed. It is enough to see how government tenders in the United States are distributed according to Congressional voting districts, and how every senior appointment in the administration requires a deal with the Senate.
If the problem is a lack of stability, the system can be improved: by raising the minimum threshold of votes for a Knesset seat, by making it more difficult to bring down the government, by completing the constitution. And if the problem is unsuitable ministers, minimum conditions for the job can be set. Today, it is more difficult to get a secretarial job that to be appointed a minister. The prime minister can be someone who has only completed third grade, who does not know English, and who lacks any administrative or political experience. This law should be changed, and serving in the cabinet should be made conditional on education, experience and suitable skills. And perhaps on a polygraph test as well, in order to eliminate suspicions of sexual harassment and corruption. In this way, we could repair some of the defects that have been exposed by Olmert's government without breaking the rules of the game, and without giving exaggerated power to politicians who have already disappointed us.
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