This time it ended well. The prime minister was released from the hospital in less than two days; his advisers and doctors convinced the public he was in excellent health and Kadima notched another increase in the polls. But Ariel Sharon's minor stroke should raise a worrisome thought: what would have happened had the harm to his health been more serious? Had he needed a lengthy hospitalization and had difficulty filling his duties? In that respect, this week's event was a "dry run." Israel can run smoothly enough for a day or two without Sharon's decision-making, but not much more than that.
The Basic Law on The Government, which was amended during Sharon's term in office, attempts to regulate the chain of succession of the government. If the prime minister is "unable" to carry out his duties, he will be replaced by his deputy for 100 days. And if the prime minister dies, or is convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, the cabinet will choose in his stead another minister from his faction. This is what happened following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The cabinet convened that same night and unanimously elected Shimon Peres as his replacement.
However, there is no certainty that this constitutional arrangement is adequate. President Moshe Katsav was disturbed this week by the vague wording of the law, which does not specify conditions or competency requisites for the appointment of a deputy prime minister. Nor does the law determine when the prime minister is "unable" to carry out his duties, or which person, persons or forum determine this: the prime minister himself, the entire cabinet, or perhaps Prof. Boleslav Goldman and the doctors of the internal medicine department at Hadassah?
At present, the choice of the deputy prime minister is exclusively given to the prime minister, and this is largely influenced by partisan and coalition considerations. Ehud Olmert received the title of deputy prime minister in 2003 as compensation, after being shortchanged in the distribution of senior cabinet portfolios (at the last minute, Sharon appointed Benjamin Netanyahu as finance minister).
It is not clear whether Sharon was then considering his own replacement in the event of an emergency, and that he wished to mark his political intimate Olmert as his successor, as opposed to other senior Likud functionaries, or that he simply wanted to complete quickly the cabinet assignments and present his new government. The question is whether such considerations are adequate in Israel, which is in a state of war and possesses strategic means of deterrence, in which the prime minister is required to make frequent life-and-death decisions.
Appointment of the deputy ought to be conducted with the utmost transparency, and the public should have advance notice of the heir apparent's identity. This is a good case for imitating the American presidential regime, in which the vice president is chosen merely to be "a heartbeat from the presidency," and his duties consist largely of waiting around.
Likewise, in Israel, the political parties should present the successor alongside the prime ministerial candidate, in order to convey a sense of governmental continuity even in a crisis situation. Currently, the assignment of "number twos" to the lists of candidates to Knesset is a statement of honor that is not binding after the elections. It should also be stated in the law that the deputy prime minister will benefit from exposure to sensitive security information and will become acquainted with the chain of strategic command. There will not always be an experienced politician standing in line, one who has already been at the helm of government and knows all of its secrets, as was the case for Peres following Rabin's death.
It is no easy thing to suggest such a proposal for the current government structure. Israeli politicians hate to imagine the day after they leave office, and they fear the coronation of successors while they are still in office, lest this promote subversion and apprehension in the party. It is more pleasant to think and act as if the leader has no possible replacement. Yet perhaps democracy should force them to think along these lines, if only to ensure that the sudden illness of the prime minister would not cause public panic. Sharon, Amir Peretz and Netanyahu should announce prior to the election who would replace them in times of trouble.
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