In today’s Israel, there is an overwhelming feeling that leaders and their governments have been letting down the people whom they serve. Assuming a large part of the responsibility for the many blunders of the Second Lebanon War, Prime Minister Olmert has lost popularity faster than any Prime Minister before him (in March of 2007 97% of Israelis surveyed wanted Olmert to resign). He will certainly be remembered as a failure as a result of the aforementioned, as well as an incapable prime minister as he and his cabinet have never been able to see eye to eye leading to several near coalition collapses. Along the way he has added corruption to his resume, being implicated in several financial scandals.
Corruption has been a problem for Israeli politicians for decades. It has discouraged new leadership from presenting itself and is fatiguing the people of Israel. If Israel is to continue to be successful, it needs to drastically change its system of governance to one that does away with corruptive and unethical behavior and allows for the nation to grow.
Israel has been re-using politicians for decades with an elite few who have been able to maintain their status as the central figures of the tiny nation. The time has come for these leaders to step aside and allow a younger, more energetic generation to start handling the reins. Some might say that this is naïve and that these older, more seasoned politicians understand the dilemmas of the region better. After all, they fought in the Six-Day and Yom-Kippur Wars. However, times are changing and the need for savvy, fresh thinkers should be a top priority for Israeli political parties as well as Israeli citizens. Figures such as Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Olmert have proven that they cannot provide Israel with what it really needs- rejuvenation. Furthermore, each of the last four Prime Ministers has been investigated on suspicions of corruption. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that there is something wrong with the system that is electing these people to office.
Of course, the problems exist not just in the Prime Minister’s position, but among Knesset members and other officials as well. To recall some recent incidents, former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was forced to resign after having been accused by ten women of sexual harassment. Likewise, Haim Ramon was convicted for sexual harassment after he supposedly forced a female IDF officer to kiss him. Money has also given Israeli politicians trouble. Katsav’s predecessor, Ezer Weizman, was removed from office for a scandal involving a French millionaire and illegal ‘gifts’. Other politicians that have been either suspected of or found guilty of handling money illegally are Omri Sharon, son of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Tzachi Hanegbi, current Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, and of course current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. No wonder Yossi Sarid, former leader of the Israeli political party Meretz, told The New York Times that, “Israelis envied those Americans who are pinning hopes on Barack Obama as representing a new generation of leaders; Israel, he said, is stuck with the same leaders who never go away.”
I do not have any suggestions for the revolutionary figure I envision for Israel. The only reasonable suggestion I can give to help the process along in finding the “savior” is changing the intense proportional representation system of government that Israel currently uses. Adjunct professor at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, Amotz Asa-El, told on-line newspaper The Age, “The problem at its heart is the electoral system, and unless we change it, the state of deterioration we are suffering now will only get worse.”
Under the current method, voters vote for the party of their choice, after each party has put together a list of candidates it would like to see in office. The amount of votes that are cast for a party (it must be above 2% to qualify for seats in the Knesset) will dictate the amount of seats in the Knesset awarded to it. The list is pre-ranked, so if a party is awarded ten seats, the first ten names on the list become Knesset members. Plain and simple, this is a weak system that produces government in-fighting making it hard for anything concrete to get done. Keeping together coalitions has become an occupation of its own and it is hurting the country’s collective interests. Smaller parties have also become intensely powerful due to the need to maintain a coalition. The anxiety that is inevitable from this way of government has ‘forced’ politicians to put their own futures before the nation’s. Most importantly the Members of Knesset are not individually chosen by the people.
France was once faced with a similar set of circumstances. At the end of World War II, a government based on intense proportional representation was established, called the Fourth Republic (1946-1958). This Republic, despite some differences, shared many of the same qualities that Israel has. The government regularly was unable to find a party with the ability to capture the majority in an election. This led the Republic to turn to unstable coalitions that were more focused on staying in power than helping the country. Just like in Israel, the constant instability of the Fourth Republic, 26 governments in 12 years, led to rampant corruption. The ability to find worthy leaders was nearly impossible as new personalities were repelled by the lack of moral and ethical conscience of the governing elite.
Furthermore, the figures that were responsible for leading were unable to do so, as the political challenges of maintaining the coalition dominated their attention, leaving little time for national issues. Additionally, the problems France was facing with its imperial conquests, including Algeria, were creating turmoil and becoming almost impossible to control – something to which Israel can relate. The economy of the Fourth Republic ironically experienced economic success even in the face of instability, much the same way Israel has.
Eventually, it was realized that the Fourth Republic of France could not produce the power desired by French politicians and the stability needed by their constituents. Reform was the only option. In 1959, the Fifth Republic, which is the one that exists today, was created and led by President Charles de Gaulle. Under the new constitution, the President is elected directly by the people and given a greater amount of power to parallel that of the Parliament. The Parliament is bi-cameral, with a National Assembly directly elected by a candidate’s local constituency, and a Senate, which is elected by an electoral college of about 145,000 local officials. Coalitions can still be necessary for parliament. However, there have been two major coalitions, one representing the views of the left and the other of the right, that have never been seriously challenged since the Fifth Republic’s creation. These reforms taken on by France have transformed it into one of the world’s leading nations.
By allowing its citizens to directly elect the President as well as the members of the National Assembly, local politicians and innovative characters are able to climb the ladder into the upper echelons of France’s political system. More importantly, there is a stronger system of checks and balances which keeps corruption low and ethics a priority. The Fifth Republic is also able to get things done: one of the first things the French were able to relieve themselves of, following the structural change, was the oppression they were forcing on the Algerians.
Israel could take a very important lesson from the French. If it’s broken, then fix it. Israel is in great need of political reform and the transformation that France underwent in order to better itself seems like a path that Israel should consider taking. Israel needs new politicians, a stronger executive branch, and a government that is stable enough to live out its term, and it needs to alleviate itself of the Palestinian crisis. The only way of doing this is by changing the way things are run. A change in governmental structure should help reduce corruption, which in turn will lead to stronger government and the emergence of stronger leaders.
With the prospect of a nuclear Iran and the possibility that the peace process is reaching an all time low, the time is now to find the leaders who can ‘bring us to the promised land.’ Israel’s supporters are very grateful for the leaders who have kept Israel safe up until this point. Let’s face it, many people back in the 1950s never thought it would make it this far. Israel is 60 years old and if the country plans on making it to the 120 mark Israelis must realize the need for political reform.
Robert Lattin interned at Meretz USA for the summer of 2008. He has returned to the University of Arizona to complete his B.A. in Near Eastern studies.