Decentralize Now

How can it be that a consultant to the prime minister can also determine whether to indict him?

Here's a question that is asked only rarely in introductory political science courses: What person in the democratic world has the most authority? Is it the president of the United States? The British prime minister? The president of France? None of the above. The correct answer is Israel's attorney general.

While one of the basic assumptions of democracy is that checks and balances are necessary to prevent the centralization of authority, the attorney general holds powers unmatched in any democratic state. The fact that the attorney general is appointed and not elected only increases the infringement of democracy.

This is why the proposal to redistribute the attorney general's responsibilities deserves serious consideration, beyond the populist hysterics certain parties are trying to generate.

Currently, the attorney general is an unelected official whose office is plagued with conflicts of interest. While the government nominates the attorney general to be its legal consultant, the attorney general does not consult with the government, but rather dictates what it can and cannot do. This authority is supposed to be in the hands of the Supreme Court, not a bureaucrat.

Though the attorney general was not elected, he participates in cabinet meetings, where everyone listens to what he has to say - both because he is the ultimate kashrut supervisor, and because he has the authority to indict each and every minister of the government that appointed him. Plus, he cannot be fired.

How can it be that a consultant to the prime minister can also determine whether to indict him?

The current situation is not a product of parliamentary legislation that came after a public discussion. The attorney general's authorities are an improbable melange of Mandate-era colonialist heritage, High Court rulings, committee resolutions that never went through the legislative process, and the legacy of a few powerful individuals who held the post at a time of powerless leaderships.

In its current form, the post is an androgynous, feral creature in the fields of Israeli politics.

First and foremost, the posts of state prosecutor and government legal adviser need to be separated into two independent offices. This proposal spurs immediate denouncements by those who claim it will compromise democracy. But this is exactly how most parliamentary democracies operate.

Clearly, the two roles need to remain independent once they are separated. This can be achieved by having the officials appointed much like judges, and by making sure that the government alone cannot depose them.

Above all, even after the two offices are split, the attorney general must not be allowed to attend cabinet meetings. Until 1977, the attorney general was called in only when his presence was required. Menachem Begin invited the attorney general to participate in all sessions, for political reasons. This created the current bizarre hybrid.

The attorney general belongs in his or her office, not at the meetings of a cabinet to which he has not been elected. Just like the chief of staff.

Separating the two posts will not infringe on democracy. It is the current situation, unparalleled in any other democratic country, that does not conform to the principles of democracy.

Israeli democracy has deep, robust foundations, despite all its problems. No one official can have a monopoly on them.