A Quick Political Fix - or Not

The Labor Party is taking very seriously the statements by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his associates, led by Interior Minister Roni Bar-On, on possibly expanding the coalition. To the best of their understanding, this would cost Amir Peretz the defense portfolio.

A senior Labor minister this week discussed with great concern the possibility of Olmert replacing Peretz with Yisrael Beiteinu chair Avigdor Lieberman. The source suggested Olmert take into account that the morning after the handover ceremony, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would call his ambassador in Tel Aviv to tell him to pack his bags. The Egyptians have not forgotten that Lieberman suggested bombing the Aswan Dam several years ago.

MKs well acquainted with Lieberman are reassuring the Labor Party leader. They say Arthur Finkelstein has convinced his client to give Olmert a big "nyet," and that the legendary consultant advised Lieberman to be patient. Their polls suggest that with a little patience, he will soon move from the opposition benches straight into the prime minister's seat. Why should he save a sinking ship when the Winograd Commission or the attorney general is about to provide the final blow?

Lieberman has been in politics long enough to know that winning over the hearts of the voting public is only the first step en route to gaining office. His real problems will start the day after his election victory, when he starts searching for elected officials to sign his far-right platform. In order to spare himself this headache, he has pulled out the magic cure: a presidential regime. Lieberman, not Olmert or Benjamin Netanyahu, is the living spirit behind the effort to reenact the dual ballot system in a new formation.

In polls conducted before the war, close to 60 percent of Israeli citizens responded positively to the statement "strong leaders can be more beneficial to the country than all the discussions and laws" - compared to less than 30 percent in other Western democracies. If the poll had been conducted the day after the war, presumably many more citizens would have been clamoring for a strong leader.

Olmert is the last person who can take the liberty of complaining about the system of government and pass the buck for the Lebanon war shortcomings to his friends in power. If there was a problem with how they functioned during the war, the roots would be in the excessive slack they granted the prime minister. They are to blame mostly for standing by while Olmert took this slack and used it to tie a noose around his own neck. Too many people even cheered for him as he dragged the Israel Defense Forces and the northern communities into a painful adventure.

A government, not a pair of socks

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who was once Lieberman's boss, is keeping a low profile for now. Perhaps he is concerned someone will retrieve from the Knesset protocols remarks he made about a presidential system seven years after he was elected prime minister and four years after he lost power. In a spring 2003 session of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Netanyahu noted, "A system of government is not like a pair of socks that is changed every day."

From the heights of his experience in American politics, he is hesitant about the idea of the young Israeli democracy embracing the older American system.

Lieberman has found partners in his new drive to attain power among Netanyahu's rivals in the Likud and among Kadima members, led by former Labor members Haim Ramon and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik. Itzik inserted the proposal for a presidential regime into her plan for "an emergency government" and then withdrew to a lukewarm declaration about the need to improve the existing system. Kadima's new-old justice minister, Meir Sheetrit, and Interior Minister Roni Bar-On, are seriously bemused by the old-new idea. Their party colleague, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has her own idea for changing the system of government: She is interested in the Danish system, where the voter chooses a party and at the same time ranks its parliamentary candidates. This system relieves ministers of sectarian pressures and limits the power of those seeking political appointments.

Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chair Menachem Ben Sasson is also in no hurry to join Lieberman's bandwagon. Sasson announced that the session to discuss changing the system of government would take place as part of the general discussion on the many and diverse components of the constitution, which he is determined to pass during this Knesset. In other words, Lieberman can take a number and wait on line. When the time comes for discussing a presidential system, the MKs will likely be interested in hearing the conclusions of the committee of experts headed by Prof. Menachem Magidor that President Moshe Katsav appointed several years ago to review the system. They will find that instead of welcoming the proposal, as those behind the committee had hoped, many committee members are cursing the moment they got involved in the matter.

South America in Israel

In a confrontation with his brother-in-law Prof. Uriel Reichman, who is father of the direct election system, Prof. Arik Carmon - president of the Israel Democracy Institute - has taken off his gloves. In an institute document, Carmon blames that system for corruption scandals involving election campaign funding and warns: "The scandal involving the organizations is only a small example of what might happen here in the future if there were to be a presidential regime, where the only ones able to run were the wealthy or those with connections to the wealthy. Political appointments would become an established norm. Every time the president changes, the entire executive branch administrative staff would change - and this will lead to corruption and a lack of professionalism."

Israel Democracy Institute experts warn that a presidential system would distance Israel from the family of democratic countries and move it closer to "corrupt populist regimes that border on dictatorships, such as those in South America. The call for a presidential system conceals the desire for a rule of one, the elimination of democracy and politics based on negotiations, consensus and compromise."

The Israel Democracy Institute says a country without a constitution like Israel would be in danger with a presidential regime, due to the lack of checks and balances to ensure the regime remains democratic. Even if a constitution is passed in the near future, until the public internalizes it, it may ring hollow in the hands of a powerful president who changes it to strengthen his position. In order to illustrate the danger, the document points to Venezuela under the rule of President Hugo Chavez.

The next paragraph brings to mind recent events in Thailand: "In a country where the democratic culture is weak, such as in Israel, where there is no democratic parliamentary way of expressing dissent, the inability to depose the president in response to political and diplomatic steps may undermine the foundations of democracy," the position paper stated. And in order to eliminate any doubt, it warns that in a polarized country such as Israel, where the rule of law is not a given, "the inability to influence the president's actions may manifest as lawbreaking, extremism and violence."

It is not certain whether this will be enough of a weapon to use in the fight over the despairing public's democratic consciousness and short political memory. One of the main arguments used by proponents of a presidential regime was the president's ability to appoint experts from outside the political realm as ministers. Who remembers that even in the existing system we had ministers such as Prof. Yaakov Neeman, who was an apolitical justice minister and finance minister?

Another common argument appeared in a guest column written by Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Gershon Eckstein for Haaretz, calling for the direct election of the president: "How is it possible to conduct foreign, security and economic policy while in the last 11 years alone, there have been seven defense ministers, nine finance ministers and ten foreign ministers? After all, the entire political system and all of the decision-making processes and long-term strategic planning were completely paralyzed."

Who remembers that during the first half of that period, Israel was governed by prime ministers who were elected directly and that Yitzhak Rabin, who was elected using the old-new system, was actually the last one who managed to change our social and diplomatic priorities?

Routine anarchy

Last Tuesday, the Interior Ministry held another session of the inquiry commission on changing Modi'in Ilit's status from that of a local council to a city. Ostensibly, this is a routine process of upgrading a community that meets the accepted standards. In effect, we have before us another example of the anarchy prevailing beyond the Green Line.

While the Interior Ministry discussed the proposal to grant Modi'in Ilit local council head Yaakov Guterman the lofty title of "mayor," the State Prosecutor's Office central district was discussing the criminal file of that same Guterman, who is suspected of fraud and breach of trust. Guterman is suspected of being selected as council leader (not elected - he was appointed based on rabbinic instructions) even though he was actually a resident of Bnei Brak.

Elsewhere, in the offices of the National Fraud Squad in Bat Yam, there has been an ongoing investigation since this March into the large-scale illegal construction in the Matityahu neighborhood of Modi'in Ilit. The High Court of Justice has already ordered a halt to the construction of 1,500 housing units, which were built contrary to the municipal master plan, and the State Prosecutor's Office agreed to submit the matter for police investigation.

Among those who appeared before the investigating committee was Shmuel Heisler, the local council's internal auditor, who exposed the case of the illegal construction. Dror Etkes, head of the Peace Now's settlement monitoring team, also appeared before the committee. Etkes disclosed that during Guterman's tenure, a school was built on privately owned Palestinian land. He has current photos of bulldozers preparing the ground for a new park, which is, amazingly enough, also on gentiles' privately owned lands.