Presto, a New System of Government

Which other parties will join the proposal after the prime minister gave it the character of a political conspiracy hatched behind their back?

The good news about the prime minister's plan to change the system of government is that at the moment it is merely a spin, whose chances of being realized in the present Knesset are slim. The bad news is that announcing this initiative demonstrates yet again how reckless Ehud Olmert is as a person.

Even in a matter of principle, like changing the system of government, Olmert concocted a shady maneuver: last week Kadima officials met the leaders of Yisrael Beiteinu and the Pensioners' Party and agreed on the new draft proposal. Olmert did not consult with the leaders of Labor, Shas and other Knesset parties. He did not wait for the final conclusions of the Megidor Committee, which is examining the structure of government in Israel. He ignored the recommendations experts have submitted to him since he became prime minister. Instead, he engaged in clandestine talks with Avigdor Lieberman and Rafi Eitan, reached an agreement with them and hastened to announce it with the blast of a trumpet heralding the arrival of the messiah. Thus Olmert sabotaged his chances of implementing his own initiative. Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu and the pensioners have among them a total of only 47 MKs. Which other parties will join the proposal after the prime minister gave it the character of a political conspiracy hatched behind their back?

Apart from that, the proposal is problematic, if not completely unacceptable. It grants the prime minister excessive power and to a large extent exempts him from the Knesset's supervision. It expropriates the Knesset's authority to approve the appointment of a quarter of the cabinet's ministers, thus apparently exempting them from accountability for their conduct to the Knesset. It gives the prime minister the power to disperse the Knesset whenever he pleases. It stipulates that none of the ministers, apart from the prime minister, will be Knesset members, thus further limiting the judicial branch's ability to monitor the executive branch's functioning. The reform presupposes that the main governmental shortcoming can be blamed on the weakness of the prime minister's position.

According to this diagnosis, the prime minister's structural dependence on the Knesset and coalition agreements is the cause of the government's instability. The reform bypasses this difficulty in a mechanical way - by giving the prime minister arbitrary powers, while ignoring Israeli reality. We can assume Israel will remain a diverse society operating a multi-party political system. It is hard to foresee if and when the need for a coalition-based government will disappear from our political life. Therefore, it will be necessary to give the Knesset a key role in supervising the government's conduct in the future as well. Olmert's reform goes against the national political grain. The system will probably reject it like a foreign implant.

Moreover, running the state will continue to derive, in the foreseeable future, from the yet unsettled controversy of national issues (the state's identity and its borders). It will be impossible to evade this constraint artificially in everyday political life by increasing the prime minister's powers unilaterally. If the proposal drafted by Olmert, Lieberman and Eitan is adopted, the public's detachment from the political leadership will grow and its escapist tendencies will strengthen as it seeks extra-parliamentary ways of expression.

Contrary to the reform Olmert has announced, changing the system of government (which indeed requires reform) must aim to strengthen the public's confidence in its elected officials. It must improve the parties' status, strengthen the Knesset's capability of supervising the government and improve the ability of coalition-based governments to function. Indeed, there are grave administrational faults in the government's work, but the remedy is not changing the system of government.