Opinion

Set Term Limits for Prime Ministers

A supporter holds up a poster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a pro-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv, November 26, 2019.
Ilan Assayag

Soon, when the way is found to establish a new government and the basic principles are agreed on among all the coalition parties, the political crisis must be exploited to solve a number of serious problems this crisis has presented.

The first challenge is limiting the prime minister to two terms in office. If the law would have determined that the prime minister cannot remain in office for more than two terms, the likelihood that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have gotten into criminal trouble would have been much lower.

Netanyahu was not born corrupt, but the longer he remained in office, the more his standards deteriorated and he mortgaged any and all important public values to guarantee his continued rule. He became corrupted and corrupted others because of his desire to remain in power.

His successor, whoever he may be, must be prevented from running again after two terms, to prevent the holding onto power from being his supreme mission. We must spare him from the corrupting, and possibly extortionate, power of remaining too long in power. It would also be appropriate to set a standard that an indicted prime minister must resign. This would increase deterrence and prevent a similar situation to that which has immobilized the government for a year already – and the clock is still ticking.

The investigations against Netanyahu exposed the corrupting power in the hands of the prime minister and communications minister against the media tycoons. When he came to ask for the media coverage he desired, Netanyahu acted against the public interest and was willing to harm his own professed beliefs: a diversity of channels, competition, low cost of living – for the benefit of himself and his family.

This could have been prevented if Netanyahu had not taken upon himself the job of communications minister and placed himself in a serious conflict of interest in dealing with his friend Shaul Elovitch, the owner of Bezeq and the Walla news site. It certainly would have been avoided if the dependence of the media on the political system had not been so great, and if businesspeople did not have in their portfolios a strategic asset in the form of a media outlet. A businessman owning a media outlet and other businesses dependent on government regulation at the same time is an almost certain recipe for getting into trouble and harming the public interest.

In most cases, the owners of Israeli media outlets have interests concerning the government in a range of industries: natural gas, real estate, cement, food and communications. Prime ministers who come after Netanyahu will be required to prove which it is they are promoting – the public interest or the good of the tycoon and their own personal benefit. If Netanyahu had reported his conflicts of interest concerning Elovitch, the Bezeq-Walla affair would have been avoided. It didn’t happen and only when it was revealed (after a report in Haaretz) that Netanyahu was friends with Elovitch did the attorney general instruct him to avoid handling matters concerning Bezeq. Netanyahu was not punished for concealing this information, and in this, too, we must set a higher standard of obedience to the law. If a politician would know that non-reporting of conflicts of interest would lead to punishment – a significant fine coming out of their own pocket, for example – their motivation to do so would drop.

It is possible to concoct a lot more regulations, laws and standards that would provide a response to all the failures that were revealed by Netanyahu’s actions, but it would never close all the loopholes. Anyone who wants to violate the law will find the ways to do so. But the next government must provide an answer to the two main failures that were exposed here: term limits for the prime minister and a dramatic reduction in the conflicts of interest of politicians concerning businesspeople – and mostly those who own media outlets. Netanyahu’s removal from the prime minister’s office without learning these lessons is an opening for repeating these mistakes in the future.