Beware of Quick-fix Solutions

Had we introduced an American-style system, we would have been condemned to four years of Benjamin Netanyahu, followed by four years of Ehud Barak.

Most Americans do not want George W. Bush as their president. According to the polls, this is due to the continued embroilment in Iraq and the president's handling of a series of natural disasters. Unless Bush commits some criminal offense, dies or goes insane, however, the citizens of the United States are stuck with him for another three years. In the land of boundless opportunity, there are no early presidential elections; the public cannot simply change the country's leader when it has had enough. They must wait until the end of his term in office.

This constraint should be borne in mind whenever someone proposes introducing a presidential-style democracy in Israel, in place of the existing parliamentary system. Proponents of the idea envy the Americans' president, whose term in office is carved in stone, and who has the freedom to hire and fire ministers without worrying about coalition restraints.

But the Israeli system has its advantages, too. Had we introduced an American-style system, we would have been condemned to four years of Benjamin Netanyahu, followed by four years of Ehud Barak. The self-destruct mechanism built into the current system allowed the opposition to muster a parliamentary majority and to send both of them packing.

The latest advocator of a presidential system is Ariel Sharon. When he came to power in 2001, Sharon represented everything that is conservative; his first act as prime minister was to cancel the system of direct election for prime minister and to reinstate the parliamentary system (with minor changes to make it more difficult for the Knesset to vote no-confidence in the government). After an exhausting two-year struggle in the political arena to legislate his disengagement plan, Sharon has now cast himself in the role of great reformer, someone who has to weaken the party mechanisms and boost the effectiveness of the government.

According to members of his bureau, Sharon is "very interested" in the work of a committee, convened by President Moshe Katsav, that is charged with examining the Israeli political system. The committee is due to report its findings in August next year. The man behind the committee was a Jewish businessman from Los Angeles, Isaac Nazarian, who is concerned by the chronic lack of stability in the Israeli government and supports a constituency-based democracy.

And what does Sharon want? As is his wont, the prime minister maintains a policy of ambiguity, commits to nothing, and says that he will examine the findings of the committee and only then formulate his position. In his new party, meanwhile, Sharon has opted for a centralized regime, without a body of members and without a party apparatus - just like Shas.

During the 16th Knesset, there was a fascinating argument over a question that has been debated by political scientists for hundreds of years: Does an elected official in a representative democracy have any discretion, or is he bound to carry out the wishes of his voters?

Sharon decided to remove the Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank for the good of the country, while the rebel lawmakers demanded that he comply with the anti-disengagement resolutions passed by the Likud. Then the roles were reversed: Sharon accused Uzi Landau and his cohorts of bucking the party line. When he quit the party, the prime minister cited this as one of the reasons he could no longer continue within the Likud.

There is no doubt that the Israeli system of government emphasizes the representation of the many nuances of opinion, rather than governmental effectiveness. The system was developed for the assembly of elected representatives in Mandate-era Palestine, before the establishment of the state; it encourages instability and frequent ministerial reshuffles; it makes orderly planning difficult. While it is important to examine and amend the current system, we must beware of quick-fix, populist solutions. The experiment that was direct elections for prime minister is now seen as a foolish mistake.

Recreating here the American presidential system or the constituency-based democracy of the United Kingdom may sound appealing as a campaign slogan, but they are both alien to the Israeli political landscape. Do we really need our politicians appointing judges and senior civil servants, as they do in America? Various other proposals for change - amendments to the current system - seem more promising. Perhaps the last word should belong to another Sharon confidante, who dismissed the entire debate as "nonsense."