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.