Olmert Pal Seeks Tough-guy Regime

Dateline Jerusalem

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published October 20, 2006, issue of October 20, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Avigdor Lieberman, head of the rightwing Yisrael Beitenu party, wants Israel to have a chief executive with broad new powers. And there’s little doubt about whom the Russian-born lawmaker would like to see in that job. Achieving that goal may elude him. But in recent days, Lieberman has been wielding inordinate power over the country’s political agenda.

His party planned to ask the Knesset to begin debate this week on his bill for a radical change in Israel’s system of government. A preliminary vote to send it to committee is possible as early as next week. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has promised Lieberman his support for the legislation, as the first step toward bringing Yisrael Beitenu’s 11 Knesset members into his shaky ruling coalition. The first benefits to Olmert are already visible; intense public discussion has erupted over Lieberman’s proposal for what could be termed domestic regime change, and this has diverted attention from Olmert’s handling of the war last summer and the collapse of his foreign policy.

This is an opportune time to call for political reform, given the flood of corruption reports filling front pages daily. On Sunday, police investigators recommended indicting Israel’s figurehead president, Moshe Katsav, on charges that include the rape of two former staffers and several lesser sexual offenses against other women, as well as fraud and illegal wiretapping. (See story on Page A4.) On Tuesday, two former justice ministers from Olmert’s Kadima party were in court: Haim Ramon was on trial for forcibly carrying out an indecent act — allegedly kissing a woman soldier against her will — and Tzahi Hanegbi began hearings on charges of fraud and breach of trust in a series of political appointments.

Under current Israeli law, the president is elected to serve seven years as a sort of constitutional monarch. Nominally the head of state, he has a largely ceremonial role but is expected to be a unifying figure who stands above partisan politics. Yisrael Beitenu’s proposed change, party director general Faina Kirshenbaum said, would create a true “presidential system.” But the bill still refers to the powerful chief executive as “prime minister” — perhaps in acknowledgement of the fact that the term “president” has been stained by months of risqué reporting on the investigation against Katsav.

Yet Yisrael Beitenu’s leaders see the country’s political flaws as running deeper than the immediate scandals, down to the basic structure of parliamentary democracy. “In the past 11 years, Israel has had five national elections, seven defense ministers, eight justice ministers, nine finance ministers and 10 foreign ministers,” Kirshenbaum said. By implication, other problems faced by the state result from this political instability.

Under Lieberman’s bill, the public would elect the prime minister directly. This would be in place of the current system by which the head of the largest faction in the Knesset becomes prime minister. The new presidential prime minister would appoint a Cabinet without need for parliamentary approval, and could establish or eliminate ministries of his own volition. Knesset members could not be ministers. The bill also allows the Knesset to declare a state of emergency under which the Cabinet could pass emergency orders with the power of law. And “if the prime minister sees that the Cabinet cannot be convened or that there is a pressing need to issue emergency orders, he may do so….”

While the bill acknowledges the existing Human Dignity and Freedom Law, a limited shield of human rights, it includes no further bill of rights.

The bill leaves in place the current proportional method for electing the legislature itself, in which a party receives seats in accordance with its share of the national vote. But it raises the minimum that a party must achieve to enter parliament to 10% from 2%. Ostensibly, that’s aimed at reducing the number of parties in the Knesset.

Critics, though, say that the change would eliminate Arab parties, whose combined strength has never quite reached 10%. That goal would fit Lieberman’s wider agenda (see sidebar, at right). He also has called for a law that would condition citizenship on taking a loyalty oath. What’s more, Lieberman has proposed a sort of territorial compromise plan that would redraw Israel’s borders so that major Jewish settlements would be annexed — and Israeli Arab towns would be turned over to a Palestinian state. When he first raised the idea, he also spoke of “transfer” of Arab citizens from elsewhere in Israel to the new Palestinian state.

There’s one more key provision of the proposed political change: If no candidate for prime minister gets 50% of the vote, a runoff would be held. As used elsewhere — France, for instance — that electoral method allows more than one party on the same side of the spectrum to run a candidate, with the one doing best likely to enter the runoff. For Lieberman, that would open the way for a prime ministerial run without need for an alliance with the Likud.

But only if the bill passes in roughly its current form — and the odds of that are low. Labor, the second-largest party in the Knesset and in the coalition, opposes it. “As long as there’s no constitution, the presidential system is dangerous,” said a spokesman for Science Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, one of the most outspoken critics. Moreover, he noted, “direct elections for prime minister have already been tried” under a previous electoral reform that has since been rescinded. Instead of political stability, the system fractured major parties and led to the famously short-lived, ineffective governments of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Like most in Labor, Pines-Paz rejects bringing Lieberman into the coalition because of his views.

On the right, National Religious Party leader Zevulun Orlev also blasted Lieberman’s bill. “Israeli society is not built for 51% [of the electorate] imposing its will on 49%,” he said. “A parliamentary system, which is based on agreements and understandings” between groups in society, “is more suitable.” Orlev also accused Lieberman of selling out the right by seeking to join the government rather than to build parliamentary support to vote Olmert out of office.

Even Kadima, which plans to back the bill in its first parliamentary vote, expects to rewrite it totally in committee, offering a very different reform for final Knesset approval. So why support Lieberman’s proposal at all? Because “it sends the [message] that if there was a failure in decision making in the second Lebanon War, the system was at fault… rather than Olmert’s incompetence,” Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi argued.

Lieberman, Ezrahi said, “knows there is no chance of the bill passing. But he is a smart politician. He knows he can blame whatever goes wrong on not accepting his plan.” The idea of a more authoritarian regime has public appeal, he said, because democracy means “institutionalized conflict” — while for many Israelis, “conflict among Jews is negative.”

Yet changing the political system will not eliminate disagreements — nor, for that matter, the potential for a politician to appoint cronies or to sexually assault a staffer. Nor, Ben-Gurion University political sociologist Lev Grinberg argues, will it solve the underlying weakness of the Olmert government: It was elected on the strength of Olmert’s plan for unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, a program that the prime minister himself is now treating as irrelevant in the wake of the summer’s war. Yet, neither Olmert nor his opponents have offered a convincing substitute.

The immediate crisis points to the lasting dilemma that has undone Israeli coalitions and fractured parties for the past decade: how to deal with the future of the territories when both staying put and negotiating with the Palestinians for a withdrawal have appeared ever more difficult to Israelis. Lieberman’s proposals for changing the system of government will not resolve that dilemma. But they do help divert attention from it.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.