ELECTION MAY 29: WILL ISRAELI SOCIETY REFORM ITS SICK & OLD POLITICAL CULTURE?
An Historical Perspective and Analysis
BY: GAD NAHSHON
The Prime Minister For First Time Will Be Elected Directly By The Voters. But The Old Sick Electoral System Of The Knesset Still Remains As Is.
When David Ben-Gurion established the State of Israel, he believed in the idea of a strong effective executive branch. He also supported any election system which would be based on a regional system. He understood that a strong executive was synonymous to a strong Israel. He used the term "Mamlachtivt" (Mamlacho is Hebrew for Kingdom). Ben- Gurion has failed since one can change Israel's election system by a simple majority (61 votes out of 120).
Ben-Gurion also made many mistakes and often behaved like a dictator but he was a great statesman and political prophet. Israel's electoral system, based on the fact that the entire country is a single electoral district and that the Knesset representation (120) is divided according to the proportion of the general secret national vote received by each party , has pushed Israel to the verge of political anarchy. Many Israelis are ashamed of the Knesset's last decade's scenes. The prestige of our legislative branch of government has reached into the brink of the abyss.
Israelis voted for the first time as citizens of the new born Jewish state only in 1949. Israel does not have a written constitution like the U.S.A. We rather adapted the British model. Instead of a constitution, Israel has Basic Laws. It should be noted that the first elected Knesset had a mission: to produce a written constitution - but its members did not fulfill this mission. The outcome was a series of constitutional crises and problems.
In November, 1948, Ben- Gurion appointed a special committee to find the best election system. The majority voted for the current system. The minority favored the British regional system.
The majority's decision was an outcome of Israel's East-European like political culture, a culture which still today has not been uprooted. I would like to note that our political culture has also been shaped by Jewish tradition and laws as well as by the French political culture. However, in the last fifteen years, one can see the 'victory' of the American system. One should not be surprised to trace this influence due to the intensive process of Americanization of the Israeli society. Also, our intellectual- academic elite has been deeply Americanized in the last twenty years. For example the introduction of the 'primaries' into party politics. The party members elect their potential members of the Knesset and not the party's headquarters or local bosses. Theoretically, the Israeli parties experienced 'democratization' of their own political behavior. Americanization in Israeli politics has also lead to devaluing ideology and political platforms. In short, the stress is on personalities. The wrapping is more important than the essence. Our politicians must look good on the screen. The outcome of the new Americanization is the growing public relations industry. We have new Gurus such as Dr. Mina Tzemach ('the queen'), Hanoch Smith, actually the pioneer of this industry (an American Jew who made Aliya) and Dr. Avi Dgani.
Today, in comparison to the past, the Israeli parties use public relations agencies and interest millions in order to stay alive in the Israeli political jungle. Like in the U.S.A., you need money in order to be elected to the Knesset.
The Americanization of modern Israeli political life has not influenced the Israelis to change their election system. As we shall see later in this article, it did not even have an impact on the inside political world of the Knesset. I must point to the fact that in Israel five minutes after his election, a new member of the Knesset can betray his party and his voters or supporters by declaring himself to be a splinter or independent party (in Hebrew 'Sia'). And later he can fish around for four years. He can often blackmail the government in power in order to get himself a ministerial job. In the current Knesset, some members of 'Tzomet', the party of General (Res.) Rafael Eitan (better known as Raful), left the party. One, Dr. Gonen Segev, even joined Rabin's Labor government as its Minister of Environmental Protection. Furthermore, two members of the Labor party, General (Res.) Avigdor Kahalani and Israel Zussman, left in March 1996 to form their own new popular party, the Third Way. This practice should be reformed. A member of a party who decides to split or leave his own party for any reason must resign from the Knesset so that his party can replace him. I would point out that in the past many discussions took place in the Knesset because there were many members such as Gad Yaacobi, now Israel's representative to the U.N., whose quest was to reform the election system.
In 1954, the General Zionist political party suggested the adaptation of the Scandinavian system: a mixture of a regional systems with a proportional system. For example, Israel should be divided into 30 districts. Each district will elect two members so there will be 60 in all. The other 60 members of the Knesset will be elected according to the proportional results. Others suggested dividing Israel into 60 districts. But no one suggested to reform the entire system.
The most serious attack on the system took place in July, 1984. A Knesset committee chaired by the reform advocate Gad Yaacobi, suggested 80 districts and 40 proportional. The pressure for reform turned into a mass movement only in 1987, as a result of the establishment of a lobby, namely 'Huka Le Israel' or in English 'A Constitution for the State of Israel'. It was a unique political movement for reform.
The movement was developed since 1984 in Tel Aviv University. In 1986, a group of professors, Prof. Uriel Riechman, Prof. Baruch Bracha, Prof. Amos Shapira and Prof. Ariel Rosen-Zvi, published a reform manifesto: 'A Proposal for a Constitution for the State of Israel'. They called for changing the system of government by the following means: (1) Direct election of the prime minister. The idea of direct election of the prime minister was first proposed by Prof. Daniel Friedman of Tel Aviv University's Law Faculty. (2) Adoption of a Bill of Rights. (3) Changing the system for electing members of the Knesset.
This new movement conducted many rallies and demonstrations in order to pressure the Knesset to save Israeli politics. There was a good momentum in 1988. In December, 1988, the most prominent advocate of reform in the Knesset and supporters of this new popular movement, Dr. David Libai, (Ph.D., Law University of Chicago), a member of the Labor party, Uriel Lynn (Likud), Prof. Amnon Rubinstein (Shinui) the liberal party and Col. (Res.) Yoash Tsidon proposed in the Knesset their Basic Law: The government. It was almost the same proposal of a new movement led by Prof Riechman, the Dean of Tel Aviv University Law Faculty.
These four Knesset members decided to fight. On May 28, 1990, the Knesset decided to send the bill to its Law and Justice Committee. In the Knesset debates the four members who carried the torch of reform stressed the negative aspects of the Israeli election systems. But it should be noted that they and the movement for reform have failed to reform the election system or to push the Knesset to write a complete Constitution for Israel. Israel does not have a regional system, only direct election of mayors and now of prime ministers.
It is not clear why the Israeli public opinion has refused to reform its destructive election system or, at least, agree to try alternatives.
The idea of an election system which first of all, must provide an outlet for every political voice is rooted in our East-European political culture. It was adopted by the Zionist congresses. Later, it was also reflected in the Palestinian "Yishuv" or the Jewish community under the British Mandate (1918-1948). This concept has encouraged over- pluralism, dis-unity and stimulated the Israeli multi-party system factionalism splinters and a tendency toward endless disintegration of parties or coalitions.
Indeed, you could come across the potential "isms" included Anarchism in Israel. Also typical to Israel were Olim (immigrants) parties. There is still room for ethnic politics in Israel. In the past, Israel had "Yemenite parties". The epithony of this Israeli uniqueness is the establishment in March 1996 of "Israel BeAliyah" a new Israeli-Russian party. The target population is around 600,000 Russian voters. The party is the brainchild of the famous ex-'prisoner of Zion' Natan Sharansky. Sharansky politically is pro-Likud. The "Russian vote" tends to be on the Right, although in the 1992 election, the Russians "betrayed" Likud by voting for the Labor Party (or Hebrew "Maarach"). A spokesman for this new party explained: "Russian immigrants will be voting for us out of pride...They are tired of hearing Israelis call Russian women 'whores' and Russian man 'mafioso'." Israel's political history teaches us that ethnic parties tend to be short lived as they come, protest and go.
The Knesset's 1992 decision to reform the political life of Israel by applying in May 29th the new "Basis Law" calling for the first direct election of the prime minister of Israel. This major constitutional change is supposed to solve and challenge the negative ramification of Israel's election system. The system condition a weak executive branch. Since the major parties have failed to win 61 seats in the Knesset out of a total of 120, the Israeli governments were "coalition governments". In our real politics it encouraged political blackmail, corruption and the inability of the government to function effectively. The outcome allowed small parties to dictate policies. They had enormous power which had nothing to do with the election results.
In Israel the 'little dictators' or the 'blackmailers' have been, sad to say, synonymous with the various religious parties or with the 'religious vote'. The religious bloc in the Knesset, since 1949, has controlled an average of 17 to 20 seats in the Knesset or the co-called 'balance vote'.
The current system distorts the wishes of the voters because any member of the Knesset, after his election, according to his party list, can split and even declare himself to be an independent faction. Furthermore, Dr. Gonen Segev, a physician, was elected in 1992 as a member of Tzomet, a far- Right-Hawkish party, to the Knesset. Later, he left his party as a 'turncoat' and joined Rabin's government (Labor) as its Energy Minister. Suddenly, Dr. Segev expressed 'dovish' statements. In a 1990's Knesset discussion, a member, Dr. Libai, the reform advocate said, "The whim of a single Knesset member can decide not only who will be the prime minister, but also the composition of the government..." Libai explained that only direct election of the prime minister will return the power to the people.
Small parties, ethnic parties, Arab-Israeli parties and especially the religious parties have fought against any change. They believe that the change means their political death. Any regional system will be detrimental to their existence. But the reformers such as Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, Israel's current Minister of Education, has a different opinion. "What happens in the Israeli system? It awards a prize not just to the minority in the Knesset but to whomever is ready to defect from one camp to another camp...Such minority rule is the greatest danger to democracy," he said. Rubinstein believes in the American balance of powers system and in the French Fifth Republic Constitution The bottom line is that the electoral system must produce a strong, steady and effective government.
Truly, Israel has wasted too much energy and national resources on the political process or "the wars among the Jews". The new system has damaged Israel's progress and well being. It slows down Israel's civilization. Israel could have been a greater leader of 21st Century progress if not for its focusing on its domestic 'party politics'. Will the new process of direct election of the prime minister bring a light at the end of the tunnel? It is not a total solution. It is only the lesser evil. Today, it is hard to predict the impact of this new change. There is, always, a discrepancy between the law and the reality. But there is a hope of change. It is a precedent. It is certainly a recognition that Israel must reform its politics. Israel must have a written constitution. It is important from the vantage point of its survival. Any objective scholar who is familiar with Israeli history, wars and geopolitics will come tot he conclusion that the current system is a disaster. It is a luxury for which the Israeli people should not have to pay the price as they have done in the past.
- The following are the main points of the new Israeli Basis Law: Basic Law:
- The Government (1992)
- Main Points
The Government is comprised of the Prime Minister and Ministers. The Prime Minister serves by virtue of his being elected in the national general elections, to be conducted on a direct, equal, and secret basis in compliance with The Election Law (The Knesset and the Prime Minister).
The Ministers will be appointed by the Prime Minister; their appointment requires the approval of the Knesset. Should the Knesset reject the Prime Minister's proposal regarding the composition of the Government, it will be regarded as an expression of no confidence in the Prime Minister.
Whenever elections are being conducted for the Knesset, the same date will also be determined for the elections for the Prime Minister, excepting when new elections are held pursuant to an election appeal.
In the cases specified in this Basic Law separate elections will be held for the election of the Prime Minister (hereinafter - special elections).
The period of service of the Prime Minister and the Ministers shall be equal to the period of service of the Knesset to which they were elected; in special elections for the period of service of the Knesset serving at that time, unless specified differently in this Basic Law.
Persons fulfilling the following conditions are eligible candidates for the Prime Ministership:
Eligible for candidacy to the Knesset and at least thirty years old on the day of submission for candidacy.
Should the elections for the Prime Minister be conducted at the same time as the Knesset elections - the candidate for Prime Minister will head the list of candidates for the Knesset.
Should special elections be held - he will be a member of Knesset.
The following bodies may propose Prime Ministerial candidates:
A faction of the outgoing Knesset, with no less than ten members, having submitted a list of candidates to the Knesset.
A few factions of the outgoing Knesset, with not less than ten members, having submitted a list of candidates or lists of candidates to the Knesset.
Fifty thousand enfranchised persons.
In special elections, a candidate may be proposed by a faction or factions of the Knesset the total number of members of the faction or factions not being less than ten members or fifty thousand enfranchised persons.
The elected Prime Minister will be the candidate receiving more than half of the valid votes, provided that he is also a Knesset member.
If no one of the candidates receives the number of votes prescribed above, repeat elections will be held on the first Tuesday after the passage of two weeks from the publication of the results of the first election.
In the return elections the candidates standing for election will be the two candidates who received the largest number of valid votes in the first elections, and who are Knesset members. In the return elections the candidate receiving the largest number of valid votes will be the chosen candidate.
Should there be a sole candidate, whether in the first elections or in the return elections, the elections will be conducted by way of a vote either for him or against him, and he will be elected if the number of valid votes for him exceeds the number of valid votes against him. If no candidate is elected according to the provisions of this section, special elections will be held.
Within 45 days of the publication of the election results the Prime Minister elect will appear before the Knesset, present the Ministers of the Government, announce the division of tasks and the guiding principles of the Government's policies, and the Prime Minister and the Ministers will begin their service, provided that the provisions of section 33(1) and (b) have been complied with. As soon as possible after that the Prime Minister and the Ministers will make their declarations of allegiance before the Knesset in the version specified in subsection (c).
A person convicted of an offense involving moral turpitude, prior to the passage of ten years from the day he completed his period of punishment, may not be appointed as a Minister.
A Knesset member seceding from his faction and failing to tender his resignation as a Knesset member may not be appointed as a Minister during the period of service of that Knesset.
Should the Government not be presented in accordance with the provisions of this law, special elections will be held.
Should the Prime Minister elect fail to present the Government as stated, and is again elected Prime Minister and again fails to present a Government, he may not submit his candidacy in the subsequent special elections.
The Knesset may, by means of a majority of its members, adopt an expression of no confidence in the Prime Minister.
An expression of no confidence in the Prime Minister will be deemed to be a Knesset decision to disperse prior to the completion of its period of service.
Non-adoption of the Budget Law within three months subsequent to the beginning of the fiscal year will be considered to be a Knesset decision on its dispersion, prior to the completion of its term of service.
Should the Prime Minister ascertain that a majority of the Knesset opposes the Government, and that the effective functioning of the Government is prevented as a result, he may, with the approval of the President of the State, disperse the Knesset by way of an order to be published in Reshumot; a decision to disperse the Knesset will be regarded as a decision of the Knesset to disperse prior to the completion of its term of service, and new elections for the Knesset and the Prime Minister will be conducted on the last Tuesday before the passage of 60 days from the day of the dispersion of the Knesset.
The Prime Minister may, after notifying the Government is his decision to do so, resign by way of submitting his written resignation to the President of the State; the resignation will go into force 48 hours after the letter of resignation is submitted to the President, unless the Prime Minister retracts prior to such time. Should the Prime Minister resign, special elections will be conducted.
Should the Prime Minister cease to function as a member of the Knesset, he will be deemed to have resigned.
Should the Prime Minister be convicted of an offense involving moral turpitude, the Knesset may remove him from office, pursuant to a decision of a majority of the Knesset members.
The Knesset may, pursuant to a vote of 80 of its members, remove the Prime Minister from office. Neither the Knesset Committee nor the Knesset itself may decide to remove the Prime Minister unless the Prime Minister has been first given an opportunity to state his case before them.
Should the Knesset decide to remove the Prime Minister from his office, special elections will be conducted.
Should the Prime Minister die or be permanently incapacitated, special elections will be held.
Should the Prime Minister die, be permanently incapacitated, or be removed from office, the Government will empower one of the Ministers who is also a Knesset member, to serve as acting Prime Minister until the new Prime Minister takes office. The acting Prime Minister will have all the powers of the Prime Minister, except for the power to disperse the Knesset.
Should the Prime Minister be temporarily unable to discharge his duties for a period not exceeding 100 consecutive days, his place will be filled by a Minister who is also a Knesset member and appointed by the Prime Minister; failing the appointment of a Deputy, or should the appointed person not be able to perform his duties, a Minister who is a Knesset member shall be appointed by the Government as acting Prime Minister until either the Prime Minister or permanent acting Prime Minister resumes his functions.
After the passage of one hundred days upon which the Prime Minister does not resume his duties, the Prime Minister will be deemed to have permanently ceased to discharge his duties and the provisions of Sections 28 and 29 shall apply.
A Prime Minister who has resigned or in whom the Knesset expressed no confidence, will continue in office until the newly elected Prime Minister assumes office.
In the event of the Prime Minister's death, permanent incapacitation, resignation, removal from office, or an expression of no confidence by the Knesset, the Ministers will continue in office until the newly elected Prime Minister assumes office.
The Government shall not exceed eighteen members in number and not be less than eight. At least one half of the Ministers shall be Knesset members. A Minister shall be appointed over an office, but a Minister may be a Minister without portfolio. The Prime Minister may also function as a Minister appointed over an office.
In a Government in which the number of Ministers including the Prime Minister does not exceed eight, no Minister may be removed from his post.
Should the number of Ministers in the Government including the Prime Minister be less than eight, the Prime Minister will appoint a Minister or Ministers to complement the required minimum; the appointment shall be made within 72 hours and until such time he may not remove any Minister from his post; if the required minimum is not complemented in accordance with these provisions, special elections will be conducted.
A Minister may resign from the Government by submitting a letter of resignation to the Prime Minister. His service in the Government will be terminated upon the passage of 48 hours from the time the letter of resignation reached the Prime Minister, unless he retracts prior to such time.
The Minister in charge of an office, may, with the approval of the Prime Minister, appoint a Deputy Minister for the office, the Deputy having been appointed from amongst the Knesset members; the Prime Minister too may appoint a Deputy in the stated manner; a Deputy Minister shall assume his role after notice of his appointment has been given by the Government to the Knesset; a Deputy Minister appointed by the Prime Minister shall be entitled "a Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's office"; the number of Deputy Ministers shall not exceed six.
A Knesset member seceding from his faction without resignation from his position subsequent to his secession, may not be appointed to the position of Deputy Minister during the period of service of the same Knesset.
The Prime Minister may, by way of written notification, remove a Minister from his post; the removal of Minister will take effect 48 hours after the letter notifying thereof was given to the Minister, unless the Prime Minister retracts prior to such time.
The Knesset may remove a Minister from his post, by way of a decision of a majority of seventy of its members; the Knesset will not debate the removal of a Minister from his post unless the initial recommendation of a majority of the Knesset committee members is received and after the Minister has been provided with an opportunity to state his case before the Knesset Committee and before the Knesset plenum.
Should the Minister cease to serve, be absent from the country, or be temporarily incapable of discharging his duties, the Prime Minister or another Minister appointed by the Prime Minister will discharge his duties until the Minister resumes his regular duties.
The Prime Minister will conduct the functioning of the Government and will set work procedures and voting procedures in the Government and its committees.
Government decisions will be adopted by a majority vote; should the vote be drawn, the Prime Minister will have an additional vote.
The Government will provide the Knesset and its committees with information upon request and will assist them in the discharging of their roles; special provisions will be prescribed by law for the classification of information when the same is required for the protection of state security and foreign relations or international trade connections or the protection of a legally mandated privilege.
The Knesset may, at the request of at least forty of its members, conduct a session with the participation of the Prime Minister, pertaining to a topic decided upon; requests as stated may be submitted no more than once a month.
The Knesset may obligate a Minister to appear before it, similar authority is granted to any of the Knesset committees within the framework of their tasks.
Any of the Knesset committees may within the framework of the discharging of their duties, and under the auspices of the relevant Minister and with his knowledge, require a civil servant or any other person prescribed in the law, to appear before them.
The Prime Minister and any Minister may speak before the Knesset and its committees.
This Basic Law may not be changed unless by a majority of the Knesset members; however, a provision prescribing that Knesset decision must be adopted by a specified number of the Knesset members, will not be altered unless by at least the same amount of Knesset members; the required majority under this section will be required for decisions of the Knesset during the first reading the second reading and the third reading; "change" for the purposes of this section means both specific and by implication.
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