A Mistaken View of Israeli Governance

Despite the quality of the Forum's makeup, its rejection of a quasi-presidential option is wrong.

Last month, the Israel Democracy Institute's Forum for Political Reform went public with a set of recommendations for improving Israel's system of governance. Some of the proposals, albeit a minority of them, are well taken. But the Forum's fundamental recommendation - to reject movement toward a quasi-presidential system - ignores the most important criterion for improving democratic governance: namely, the nature of the challenges facing Israel.

No single form of democratic governance fits all circumstances. Rather, adjustment to the specific realities of each country is essential. For this reason, comparative study of regimes can only be superficial if it doesn't include examination of the societies that they serve, and evaluation of the regimes' capacity to cope with the main challenges they face. For instance, in terms of abstract constitutional law and political science, the constitution of the Weimar Republic was well crafted, but because it ignored the real challenges facing Germany after its defeat in World War I, it paved the way for the Nazi regime. Another example, of much pertinence for Israel, is the quasi-presidential regime instituted by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, which was essential for enabling him in 1962 to resolve the Algerian problem.

Therefore, the Forum (and all other groups considering reform of the Israeli regime ) should have based its recommendations, first, on an examination of the challenges facing Israel. Because this was not done, and despite the quality of the Forum's makeup, its rejection of a quasi-presidential option is wrong. Consequently many others of its recommendations as well are inadequate, if not liable to cause more harm than good if implemented.

One of the working papers prepared under the auspices of the Israel Democracy Institute, "No to a Presidential Regime in Israel!" - one that most likely influenced the Forum in its deliberations - well illustrates the sources of the failure. It states (in my translation ): "A presidential regime is a regime of decisions and not compromises, and therefore it will harm minorities and aggravate disagreements and cleavage."

In addition to being factually wrong - witness the type of compromises the U.S. president is obligated to make in his job - this statement also completely ignores situations requiring clear-cut decisions in the face of sharp social and political disagreements, as well as on issues in which it is necessary to overcome the tyranny of the status quo and powerful interest groups. This is clearly the Israeli situation with respect to the peace process, where dithering is the worst of all alternatives; when it comes to social issues such as income disparities and the integration of minorities; and on economic issues such as land policy and water pricing.

Another striking illustration of the biased anti-presidential regime views is the declaration in the working paper mentioned above that a "presidential regime will detach the governmental bodies from each other and transform them into adversaries instead of strengthening the fruitful cooperation between them."

For a moment I thought I was reading satire. It's absurd to speak about "fruitful cooperation" between most of the ministries in Israel. On the contrary: The country's parliamentary-coalition regime (combined with the lack of a coherent senior civil service stratum ) necessarily results in distribution of the ministerial portfolios as "property" between ministers and parties, who in the main do what they want, preventing proper design and implementation of overall national policies - such as, for instance, a sorely needed, integrated socio-economic policy.

The choice between a quasi-presidential regime and a parliamentary one is the key to all other governance details. This renders even more egregious the Forum's rather cavalier rejection of the option of some version of a quasi-presidential regime, instead of a balanced professional analysis of advantages and disadvantages, a presentation of different views on the matter, and a recommendation for further in-depth consideration, as such a weighty issue surely requires.

The unavoidable conclusion is that the recommendations of the Forum do not face squarely the critical Israeli need for greater concentration of democratic political power in the hands of an elected chief executive, subject to careful safeguards. Only such a change will enable clear choices and overall national policies on crucial future-shaping issues. Thus the Forum missed what is most essential in restructuring the Israeli regime.

Prof. Yehezkel Dror's forthcoming book, "Israeli Statecraft: National Security Challenges and Responses," is due out next month from Routledge.