Justice Meir Shamgar, Can MKs Be Persuaded to Change the Parliamentary System in Israel?

Shamgar recommends increasing the number of serving Knesset members to 180; increasing the minimum threshold for a party to enter the Knesset and limiting the size of the government to just 18 ministers and 6 deputy ministers.

Justice (ret. ) Meir Shamgar, former president of the Supreme Court, yesterday presented to the Knesset speaker the recommendations of the Forum for Political Reform in Israel, which he chairs. The recommendations include 10 far-reaching steps: increasing the number of serving Knesset members to 180; gradually increasing the minimum threshold for a party to enter the Knesset to 4 percent of the vote to strengthen two large parties in place of the fragmented parties and limiting the size of the government to just 18 ministers and six deputy ministers. The recommendations are based, among others, on the work of a research group set up by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Is it possible to persuade the members of the Knesset to change the system of government in Israel? Are the recommendations you submitted implementable, or is this a purely academic exercise?

Justice Meir Shamgar
Emil Salman

Clearly, the authority to introduce change of any kind into the regulations of the law relating to the executive or legislative authority is exclusively in the hands of the legislature. We did the preparatory work for it to be a draft of the issues to be presented to the people authorized to do so, and in the process did not ignore the fact that they are the sole persons authorized to do so. It's a little bit like when we formulated a draft constitution. We knew that we are not the ones who would enact the constitution when we wrote the document. This is dependent exclusively on the members of Knesset. They have to respond to this challenge, which we are presenting to them.

We did not stop at preparing proposed revisions alone; we also talked about the existing situation, which is not satisfactory and necessitates the reforms. We hope that the members of Knesset will be persuaded not just by the proposals, but also by the background to the situation, and understand there is a need for the revisions. I advocate accepting the revisions because I hope that the State of Israel will strive for its system to be the most advanced and the best one possible and lead to better governance. I am striving for the State of Israel to not be just another Western country in favor of parliamentary democracy, but also one that achieves the objectives of democracy.

The recommendations you have formulated were submitted at a time when the public feels indifferent and lacks confidence in the system of government. Will implementing the recommendations improve the public's faith in the authorities?

The dissatisfaction of the part of the public with the nature of the authorities' actions stems from the fact that there is no implementation of the decisions that are made, and there is no one to approach to address the public's problems. We are submitting proposals that have a certain objective. Among others, our goal is to bring about a situation where the Knesset will have two large blocs, which will encompass not only constituents of the existing large parties, but also those who together with them can create a system that is based on its size and significance and will have the ability to govern or the ability to serve as an opposition.

The fact that the public today is expressing a lack of faith in politics stems from a certain frustration they feel, when there are things whose implementation they are demanding and it is not happening.

The way to do it is to improve the authorities' ability to govern and their ability to function. The hope is that the reservations with regard to politicians, which are created because of inaction in these areas, will dissipate when things will be done in a more controlled and better fashion. To do that, it is necessary to have two major bodies in the Knesset, as in other democratic countries."

Are you not concerned that the creation of two large blocs will come at the expense of existing parties? That the voice of the minority will not be heard? It is doubtful whether Meretz, Habayit Hayehudi or the Arab factions will manage to get representatives elected to the Knesset or merge into the large blocs.

In my opinion, when a person joins a given bloc, due to some kind of closeness to the bloc's ideas, he does not have to be dispossessed of his right to voice his personal, contrary opinion. In such cases, there need not be a departure from the faction to set up small, fragmented bodies whose influence is very minimal both in the coalition and in the opposition. What is happening today? Our democracy is trying to preserve the variety of opinions among the public, but it is being done in a very extreme way, with 12, 13, 14 parties. It is impossible to create a structure of governance in this way.

Why didn't you decide to strengthen the standing of the prime minister over that of the Knesset and prefer actually to strengthen the parties? Why did you reject the idea of instituting a presidential system?

The prime minister, according to the Roman saying is primus inter pares, the first among equals. In the parliamentary democracy system, it is impossible to grant exceptional powers to a person who cannot bring the public to identify with his ideology. I look at the existing situation. The overwhelming majority of democratic countries in the Western world have a system of parliamentary democracy. I think that the presidential system of the United States was created primarily because of the special structure of the 13 Colonies that have today grown and the desire of the first colonies to create some kind of balance. Our mentality is different, our tradition is different. We belong to the family of nations that has European perceptions of democracy. Today, the system of parliamentary democracy is being imitated not only by the Western democracies but also by the Eastern ones that had been under Soviet rule - in Romania, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Do you think the Knesset will be able to adopt your draft as is?

We are not demanding a copyright, or that they adopt the proposals word for word. We are suggesting rational and logical things. I have no complaint if the members of Knesset reach different conclusions; it is not in our hands. It is an independent body and it is authorized to make decisions regarding this matter."

During the current Knesset session there were a number of bills that try to bypass rulings of the Supreme Court. Do you expect the clash between the legislature and the rulings of the High Court of Justice to stop or will the tension between these two bodies persist?

In my opinion, the situation in this area is not expected to settle down. The voicing of an independent opinion by the judicial authority is an inalienable asset, and I do not think this will change. It is no different from other countries. The differing approaches of the elected body and the courts are something you see both in the U.S. and in other Wester n democracies. It is good for us that the court has an opinion, and can express it. The legislation is always the superior. If you want to ensure that legislation has a given quality, the only way to do so is by enacting a constitution.