The Lieberman Framework: Strong Leader, Weak Minorities

Avigdor Lieberman's vision to strengthen government stability, announced on Thursday, is packed with promises, but raises even more questions

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Avigdor Lieberman at a press conference, Jerusalem, November 21, 2019
Avigdor Lieberman at a press conference, Jerusalem, November 21, 2019Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Noa Landau
Noa Landau
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

As Israel enters new heights of political deadlock, lawmaker and electoral troublemaker Avigdor Lieberman chose to include in his Thursday press conference a short speech unveiling his proposal to change Israel's electoral system.

To prevent the country from experiencing the kind of mess it currently is in, the chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu enjoined “all the Zionist parties” to sign a joint pact that will keep the Haredim and Arabs out of power; return to elect the prime minister in a direct vote; and grant the prime minister veto power over legislation in the Knesset.

>> Read more: Lieberman strikes back: Why the man who helped put Netanyahu in power is now taking him down

The secular ultra-nationalist also argued for the law to change so that a prime minister unable to form a viable coalition would be able to establish a government of experts for two years. The Knesset should also immediately legislate to make voting obligatory, Lieberman said, with those who do not vote strapped from the right of receiving a day of vacation on Election Day.

Lieberman called on the establishment to hold a “significant discussion” of the issue, but his party seemed more reticent to push this onto the agenda. Yisrael Beiteinu refused to answer Haaretz's questions and requests for clarifications on Thursday. "there is no point in going into details for now,” party sources said, with most of the topics irrelevant to the near future. Lieberman seems intent on promoting his proposal after a new government is formed, according to some party officials said.

Lieberman’s vision, which is in fact little more than a collection of controversial proposals, has received mixed responses from researchers and experts on the system of government in Israel. Some say that there is no choice but to make changes to the system. Others warn that such changes will not strengthen democracy, but instead weaken it.

Preparing a Netanyahu succession

“This looks like a move to oppose Netanyahu, but in reality it is a complementary move,” says Gayil Talshir of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “It is an attempt to undermine the public’s faith in the rules of Israel’s parliamentary democracy.”

Lieberman’s proposals seem to echo controversial Netanyahu statements - “the Arabs stole the election” - and support problematic legislation, like the bill allowing cameras in polling stations, which was intended to undermine the public’s faith in its democratic institutions.

Netanyahu's legal troubles give him an impetus to pursue this kind of self-serving electoral policies, but “for people such as Lieberman and [newly appointed Defense minister] Bennett, this is a period of reorganization to prepare for Netanyahu's succession," adds Talshir.

"If they don’t get to the top of Likud, the only way they can be elected to lead the country is through direct elections,” Talshir argues. And Lieberman's plan pushes another aspect forward too, she says: “This reflects a trend to concentrate authority in the hands of the cabinet rather than in other institutions.”

Concentration of power

The direct election model is just a part of Lieberman's attempts at a greater concentration of power. “We need to grant the prime minister the ability to veto legislation in the Knesset,” said Lieberman, adding that only a two-thirds plus one majority would overturn the decision. The same mechanism would be necessary to bring down the unelected cabinet serving under a prime minister without a coalition.

“Israel suffers from the unbalanced relationship between the Knesset and the government,” says Matan Gutman, a researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, who has been advising Lieberman, according to fellow Yisrael Beiteinu MK Eli Avidar.

“Lieberman is finally shining the spotlight in the right direction – the redefinition of the system of relationships between Knesset and the government,” Gutman says. The former chief of staff in the State Comptroller's office adds other elements should also make their way into the reforms. "The cabinet should be completely cut off from the legislative process, and we should do away with the Ministerial Committee on Legislation,” he argues. This would enable the legislative branch to do what it is supposed to do in a democracy: To legislate without the control of the executive branch.

“We also need to discuss the electoral system anew," Gutman goes on to say. "Lieberman’s proposals, if they are accepted, will bring us closer to the model of government known in the literature as semi-presidential,” says Gutman.

Modeled on the powers of the American presidency, Lieberman’s proposals could indeed strengthen the power of Israel's executive branch – but with one important difference, according to Bar-Ilan university's Professor Jonathan Rynhold. “The difference is that the American system divides power between three branches of government, whereas Lieberman and the Israeli right seek to weaken the role of the Supreme Court in Israel," Rynhold says. "This weak check on executive power would be compounded by the lack of a written constitution in Israel; a constitution which severely circumscribes executive power in America.".

The issue of vetoing legislation is more complicated, especially if Lieberman’s initiative does not plan on ending the parliamentary system. “A veto on legislation is a tool that exists only in a true presidential system, when the president does not need the confidence of the parliament and it is impossible to [hold a no-confidence vote],” says Amir Fuchs, a researcher and the head of the Defending Democratic Values program at the Israel Democracy Institute. “After all, in the parliamentary system, almost no law opposed by the prime minister can pass.”

Moreover, if voters are tasked with two electoral choices, one for Knesset and one for prime minister, “this will increase the power of the small and medium-sized parties," Fuchs argues, " with people voting for them alongside a different prime minister. This will actually undermine stability.”

What about a government of experts? “It is possible to think of something like this, in which the person who appoints the cabinet is someone from outside the system," Fuchs says, pointing at Austria, where, under crtain circumstances, the president can appoint a cabinet of technocrats, "but this is not what Lieberman is proposing.” Austria, where the last election's big winner, former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, is finding it difficult to put together a government, might not be the right example to follow.

If it ain't broke...

Some argue that Lieberman might be out to fix what is not broken. The problem is not a lack of governmental stability, but maybe of “over stability,” Professor Yossi Shain, head of the school of political science, government and international affairs at Tel Aviv University, pointing at “the same ruling bloc personally committed to Netanyahu.”

The ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu's bloc, which are Lieberman's ideological foes, unsuprisingly received a great deal of attention in his speech. Lieberman emphasized the need for “all the Zionist parties” to sign a joint pact on the issue of religion and state. “The Haredim should not be able to play off between the two large parties, extorting one and and then the other,” he said, drawing accusations of antisemitism. “For a good number of years, I have been speaking about such an agreement of all the Zionist parties, not to give room to maneuver to other groups,' Lieberman added.

Singling out minority groups raises serious questions.“We are in a polarized society in which rushing for a knock-out solution will inevitably go against the minorities,” says Professor Menachem Ben-Sasson, the president of the Hebrew University and a former chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and justice Committee. “Minorities have two channels for expression: The Knesset or the street. If we prevent minorities from reaching the Knesset, we will receive the response on the streets, and there the veto, two-thirds votes, or a government of technocrats won’t help,” he adds.

Ben-Sasson also rules out the idea of a direct election, saying that
allowing “the head of the largest party to form the government is a less complex step, and could possibly prevent a lot of the complications we’ve run into.”

Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, agrees: “Changes in the political system are necessary... but a return to the direct election [of the prime minister] is a bad idea."

"The key to rehabilitating the political system and bringing back the public’s trust in its representatives is to change the government-building method, so that the prime minister is the head of the largest party,” says Plesner.

Truth or dare

Lieberman wants to make voting compulsory before a potential third round of elections – which currently looks unavoidable. “There’s no point in making it a vacation for a large number of people not to vote,” explained Lieberman on Thursday.

This kind of policy exists today in 29 countries, mostly in Europe and Latin America, with differing sanctions. “Compulsory voting could bring about a higher turnout and more suitable representation for parts of the population,” says Chen Friedberg, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a senior lecturer at Ariel University. It all depends on the level of enforcement, she says.

“If there is an obligation to vote without significant enforcement, the goal of raising voter turnout will not necessarily be achieved.” In Australia, which has a strict enforcement and sanctions policy, turnout can reach around 92 percent.

Friedberg says the obligation to vote raises the level of citizens’ political awareness, “which in the end will strengthen the democratic process.” But it is not that straightforward. In a democracy, should the government have the right to interfere with an individual's right not to vote, Friedberg asks?

Compulsory voting is “an attempt to achieve legitimacy not dissimilar from authoritarian regimes," Friedberg says. "In the context of Israel specifically, it could be a problem in principle to compel the Arab population to vote,” she adds.

The idea of compulsory voting as in Australia, with sanctions, is a “bit extreme,” researcher Amir Fuchs says, but thee is a middle way. It is possible “to provide incentives: For example, to condition the vacation day on actually voting. This seems right to me. It is not a fine, it is providing a benefit. I don’t see it as extreme harm to someone who does not want to vote.”

Israel is not alone

Israel is not the only country in which a crisis is threatening the system of government. Emmanuel Navon, a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum, says “political paralysis also befalls countries with governmental systems and elections that some people want to import to Israel,” including the United States, where executive and legislative often butt heads.

“The government in Peru is paralyzed after the president dissolved the congress that ousted him; Britain, which has an electoral system that naturally favors a two-party system, is in a political crisis because of Brexit; and in the last election in Canada, which is run according to the British first-past-the-post system, the Conservatives received more votes, but less seats than the Liberals, who did not achieve a majority,” says Navon.

Even in countries where the electoral system is completely different than Israel's, problems exist. Take minority governments, an issue that has been top of the agenda recently in Israel. Minority governments are nothing exceptional these days around the world, and the claim that it is a blow to democracy is deceptive, argues Ofer Kenig in an article published this week on the Israel Democracy Institute website.

Spain held an election this month for the fourth time in less than four years. British voters will go to the polls in less than a month to vote for the third time in four years – the fourth time if we include the Brexit referendum. Germany and Sweden had unprecedentedly long and complex coalition negotiations after their recent elections, and in Belgium and Austria, they are still searching for a breakthrough that will allow the formation of a new government after the election, says Kenig.

Belgium, for example, “is among the few countries in the democratic world where the level of party division is higher than in Israel,” he says. Israel's seven-months-long electoral hell is small fry for the Belgians, who, in 2010, waited a year and a half, 540 days, after the elections before a government was sworn in.

And if anyone is wondering, today, too, Belgium is at a political impasse, just like Israel.

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