A New Year?s Resolution for 2007? Israel Weighs the Prospects for Political Reform

The onset of the new year—which may well be one of the most decisive in the annals of the modern Middle East, particularly when it comes to the all-important issue of Iran’s nuclear drive—was marked in the broader region by two dramatic and significant events:

  • The execution of Saddam Hussein, in a fashion and a timing that angered many in the Sunni sectors of the Arab and Islamic world (he was hanged, apparently against the advice of the U.S. embassy, on ‘Id al-Adha, the Holiday of Sacrifice, one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar), but was welcomed, indeed celebrated, by the majority of Iraqis (and they know why, better than anyone beyond their borders);
  • The rout of the Somali radical Islamist militias, which had conquered Mogadishu earlier in 2006. Driven out quickly by the invading Ethiopian army (acting in coordination with the legitimate Somali government), they provided proof, at the tail end of a gloomy year, that there is nothing inevitable and preordained about the “rise and rise” of Islamist totalitarianism across the region.

In Israel’s more immediate environment, however, the prospects were less encouraging. The evolution of the Palestinian position continued to be slow and painful, with haphazard internecine violence once again erupting in Gaza. There were mixed and manipulative reports, on the eve of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s important visit to Cairo, as to the possible release, soon, of Gil’ad Shalit: Upon this hinges the larger plan for a reconstitution of the Palestinian cabinet, which could then lead to the resumption of negotiations, based on the Road Map concept of a “PSPB”—Palestinian state with provisional borders. But the keys are in the hands of Khaled Mash’al in Damascus, and neither he nor his host seems to be in any hurry, at least not until Israel or the U.S. changes its mind about engaging with Syria.

In Lebanon, the fine, fragile balance—between the Fouad Siniora government, backed by the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition, on the one hand; and the dangerous alliance of Hezbollah, the current president, Emile Lahoud, and the renegade seeking to become the next Syrian-backed president, Michel Aoun, on the other (and behind them, the still-mincing shadow of the Syrian intelligence services)—has been kept, throughout the thrusts and counterthrusts of recent weeks. But it might not be kept for long, and the presidential elections will soon be upon us. It is with some reason that the IDF acts as if we might face another war within months.
Still, for the time being, there is little an Israeli government can do to affect the regional balance—and there is little it wants to do on the economy. (“If it ain’t broke”—
and it is not—“don’t fix it.”) One field of productive endeavor, however, could be the effort to reform the political structure. The system has been shown to be dysfunctional and does need a comprehensive fix.

One serious attempt to offer such a fix is embodied in the recommendations of the Megidor Commission, which presented its findings to President Moshe Katzav on January 1, 2007. A year ago, when still at the peak of his prestige as a truly nonpartisan, constructive figure, the president asked 73 experts and public leaders, chaired by the president of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (and for balance, hosted by Tel Aviv University, and assisted by the Center for Civic Empowerment), to assess the overall problem of governance and weigh the options for comprehensive reform of the Israeli democratic structure. That structure has been strained by the pressures of war, but equally is in need of adjustment to a fast-changing social, economic, cultural, and ideological environment that no longer corresponds to the circumstances under which David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues crafted the ship of state in 1948. The recommendations of the commission include:

  • On one hand, the rejection of ideas, made current in recent years by several political leaders, favoring the abandonment of the present parliamentary system and the establishment of an American (or French)-style presidential model. The overall power of the Knesset will not be challenged; in some respects, such as the budgetary process, it stands to be enhanced.
  • On the other hand, there must be an end to the political fragmentation and the repeating cycle of political crises resulting from the excessive power that small Knesset factions hold over the major parties. In order to improve the prospects of political stability and yet retain an option for smaller groups in society to express themselves, the commission (after a sharp debate: the plenary actually endorsed a view that the majority in the subcommittee on electoral reform had rejected) took a position in favor of a mixed model: The Knesset would be made up of 60 MKs to be elected nationally and proportionately and 60 from electoral districts—a system, ironically enough, not unlike the one already applied in the Palestinian parliamentary elections.
  • Governance would also be improved, another subcommittee suggested, if the excessive power of the Budget Division of the Ministry of Finance (the Israeli equivalent of the Office of Management and Budget, in terms of its function—but answering to the minister of finance, not the prime minister) would be curtailed. One good way to do so would be to move to a two-year budgetary cycle, with better options for the various ministries and the Knesset to think through its goals and means and to apply their plans with a degree of flexibility.
  • Another controversial aspect of the Megidor process was the discussion about the powers of the Supreme Court, which many in Israel—not only the ultra-Orthodox, who abhor the court’s liberal bent, or the nationalists, who are angry with the stand it took on the Disengagement—consider to have crossed the line of legitimate “judicial activism.”

If endorsed—as a whole or in part, or even as a trigger for serious debate—these recommendations would make a difference in the way Israeli politics run their course, as well as in the general competence of government. Two major considerations, however, stand in the way:

  1. Katzav’s public standing: As the prime mover in this high-level reform effort, his support would be crucial, but it now seems that he will soon be indicted for sexual harassment (if not rape!) in a case currently pending the decision of the attorney general, Mani Mazuz. Once this happens, the presidency as an institution would be in turmoil for months.
  2. Resistance by the smaller political parties: For most of them, the proposed reforms—as they are indeed supposed to do—would spell the end of their present privileges, perhaps even of their role in national politics. Given that in the fragmented Knesset, as elected in March 2006, the three large parties—Kadima, Labor, and Likud—have barely half the house among them, it will not be easy for the reformers to have their way.

Still, the impulse behind the commission’s work is valid, and will continue to be felt. An important magazine, Eretz Acheret (“a different country”), recently chose to warn, on its front page, that the political system is falling apart. To some extent, this sense of malaise may be ascribed to the lack of leadership, and some would blame the personal qualities of Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz at the helm. But much of it flows from the failures of the present political model, and calls for reform would, therefore, persist even if the Megidor effort stalls.

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