John Dalberg-Acton, commonly known as Lord Acton, famously wrote in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The 19th-century historian and politician's adage is the underlying reasoning for a new bill limiting the term of Israel's prime minister to eight years.
While such a law may make political sense in the context of contemporary Israeli politics, it makes less sense for a parliamentary democracy.
The law imperatively needed to strengthen Israeli democracy isn't term limits but simple, sensible legislation prohibiting an indicted politician from running or becoming prime minister. All parties in the governing coalition have pledged to pass such a bill but seem too hesitant to proceed. Their disincentive is purely political, not constitutional.
According to his opponents, his semi-authoritarian tendencies have relentlessly weakened the checks and balances of Israeli democracy. He has debilitated democracy’s gatekeepers, constantly accusing the “deep state” – the judicial system, the law enforcement agencies, the bureaucracy – of actively subverting him and framing him for crimes he never committed using the “fake news" media that he claims is out to get him. And his demagogic, divisive and often incendiary political language has posed a clear and present danger to Israeli democracy. If American readers find this eerily familiar, they're right.
That's the political gluten that enabled the formation of a diverse governing coalition: To prevent political power amassed over a long time from becoming political corruption and threatening the foundations of a democracy governed by laws, the prime minister's terms should be limited.
The bill, to be introduced as “government legislation” after gaining unanimous support from ministers, limits a future prime minister to eight years in office. The bill does not apply retroactively, meaning it does not limit previous prime ministers such as Netanyahu. That quelled the predicted criticism that the bill is tailor-made against Netanyahu, but it would be hard to argue that his time in office didn't precipitate the proposed legislation.
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The authors may argue that this isn't just about Netanyahu, but they’ll concede that his 12 consecutive years made the bill necessary. Ironically, though unsurprisingly, Netanyahu made a passionate case for term limits when he was in the opposition, but is now adamantly against them.
The glory that was Greece
Term limits have political logic in countries with a presidential system of government. Historically, term limits were introduced in both ancient Greece and Rome, in an effort to curb the power in the hands of officeholders. This mechanism doesn't exist in parliamentary democracies, with the exception of Switzerland, stemming from its unique system of government.
When George Washington decided in 1797 not to run for a third term as president of the new American republic, he set a precedent for the two-term presidency to became a norm. None of his successors sought a third term, even though there was no law against it. That practice ended in 1940 when, against the backdrop of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt won a third term after his victories in 1932 and 1936.
FDR won a fourth term in 1944, but by 1947 an amendment to the Constitution was crafted and, once ratified in 1951, the 22nd Amendment set a limit of two consecutive terms, or two separate four-year terms, and up to two years of another president's term.
In France, the 2008 constitutional reform set a maximum of two consecutive five-year terms for president. The five-year term was already shortened from seven years in 2000.
These are presidential systems in which the leader is safe from any political changes in parliament and can only be replaced via impeachment or incapacitation; that is, an inability to discharge the powers of the office. In fact, in France, the president has immunity and cannot be required to testify.
In parliamentary democracies, term limits do not exist – not in Britain for the prime minister, who serves at “the pleasure of Her Majesty,” not in Germany for the chancellor, not in Canada for the prime minister. In fact, term limits don't exist in the 21 countries that can broadly be defined as parliamentary democracies, including Israel. Some of these countries (Germany and Israel, for example) have a titular head of state, a nonexecutive president whose terms are indeed limited.
Plenty of downsides
The purpose of the Israeli bill is essentially to recalibrate the powers of the prime minister and the political system’s checks and balances. The office of the Israeli prime minister is already one of the strongest among democracies and is increasingly becoming presidential in its powers and authority. Meanwhile, parliament (the Knesset) has weakened commensurately and become significantly less effective in supervising and balancing the government.
Yet in the last four elections, the incumbent prime minister, Netanyahu, failed to form a government due to the lack of a parliamentary majority. In other words, the Knesset proved that it serves as the de facto term limiter on a prime minister.
Furthermore, the average length of a prime minister’s tenure has been around five years, hardly requiring a term-limit law. The claim that “Netanyahu has been there since 2009, and that’s too long” may make political sense, but in fact he has been defeated, and between 1995 and 2006 there were four different prime ministers: Shimon Peres, Netanyahu in his first term, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
Legislating term limits has significant political downsides, too. There is no proof that it cultivates quality political leadership. There is no proof that it improves governability. Israel’s main political problems are in management, planning, policy implementation, political culture, political discourse and the quality of politicians, not the length of the prime minister’s tenure.
Then there are the inevitable political-manipulation scenarios: A term-limited prime minister will strive for an early election so he or she can win another term before the end of the eight-year period.
Conversely, when it's clear a prime minister can no longer run as the tenure nears expiration, not only will he or she become a lame duck, it's very likely the wannabe successors will actively undermine the incumbent's authority in a bid to take over.
There is no question that the Netanyahu era put a big question mark on the negatives of a long tenure, and the style and substance of that period further dented Israeli democracy. But the core problems are systemic and the remedy isn't term limits.
Introducing a major constitutional change to address a political crisis revolving around one man may be understandable, but cannot be justified.