September 23, 2004
A Man, A Plan, Electoral Reform
There are public dinners for good causes and others to honor worthy community leaders, but the one called by Izak Parvis Nazarian aims at nothing less than changing the way Israelis choose their government.
The inaugural gala of the Citizens' Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI) on Oct. 3 in Beverly Hills will introduce the public to a project that, even given the wealth and drive of its originator, has daunted Israel's politicians and academicians since the beginning of the state.
Underlying many of Israel's problems, Nazarian said in an interview at his Wilshire Boulevard office, is the instability inherent in the Jewish state's system of proportional representation, in which voters cast their ballots for national parties, rather than for individual local candidates. One result has been that no single party has ever won the majority of votes, small parties proliferate and the survival of any government is often based on unstable coalitions.
Such an electoral system, argued Nazarian, not only weakens a state that faces repeated life-and-death decisions but also lacks accountability toward its own citizens. This argument has been endorsed by two unlikely allies, former Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party and Ehud Barak of Labor.
In an open letter to "Friends of Israel," the two men wrote: "The time for change is long overdue. A political restructuring is necessary for Israel to gradually embark on a new path."
"Governments must have the ability, and therefore the required stability, to govern," the letter continued. "Policy makers need to be fully accountable to their constituents. Israeli citizens must have the ability to fully exercise their democratic rights."
They added, "For these reasons, we feel that CECI has the potential to begin to steer Israel out of its chronic political malaise and open a new chapter for Israeli democracy."
To buttress the point, Netanyahu, Barak and CECI noted that in the state's 56-year history, only two prime ministers -- Golda Meir and Menachem Begin -- out of 11 have served out their full four-year term of office without having to reconstruct their coalitions. Since its establishment, Israel has had 29 governments.
CECI's intent is to organize and underwrite an intensive and long-range educational "empowerment" program for all Israelis on their democratic rights and duties and on the advantages of a more representative and accountable form of government.
In itself, the educational campaign will not advocate any specific system of democratic government, and CECI's academic brain trust, drawn from five Israeli universities, will study in depth the current American, British, Indian, German and Belgian government structures.
However, the signs so far point toward some adaptation of the U.S. presidential model, as seen in the blueprint for the educational empowerment campaign.
The proposal calls for dividing Israel into six geographical regions, but the basic units will be 120 districts, each with a population of at least 50,000 citizens. Since the number of proposed districts is exactly equal to the number of Knesset seats, it is not difficult to imagine them as future "congressional" districts, each sending one representative to Israel's parliament.
As its initial focus, CECI plans to set up demonstration centers in two districts, the relatively poor Beit Shemesh district in the Jerusalem region and the more affluent Zichron Ya'akov district in the Haifa region.
To spread its educational message, CECI plans to use all the main media, particularly the Internet, set up a joint Web site with the Ministry of Education, create special programs for young people going into the military, obtain feedback from each of the 120 districts and celebrate an annual democracy day.
Tel Aviv University has been designated as the research and administrative hub for the project. An initial conference of all principals is planned before the end of this year, and the center is expected to be up and running by the middle of next year.
Already in place are CECI's executive committee and boards of governors, directors and academicians studded with impressive Israeli and American names. Industrialist Yair Shamir, son of former prime minister Itzhak Shamir, is chairman of the board of directors.
Among Angelenos listed on various CECI boards and committees are Jimmy Delshad, Zvi Dershowitz, Shimon Erem, Irwin Field, John Fishel, Stanley Gold, Jona Goldrich, Yehuda Handelsman, Neil Kadisha, Moshe Lazar, Bejan Nahai, Benjamin Nazarian, Pejman Salimpour, Steven Spiegel, David Suissa, Brian Weiner, Robert Wexler and Rabbi David Wolpe.
So far, the cost of the enterprise has been borne by the Nazarian family, but CECI plans to raise $6.8 million from U.S. donors and Israeli companies. Nazarian's chief organizer is his daughter, Dora Kadisha, who serves as Western regional executive director of American Friends of CECI, and is also a Jewish Journal board member.
From David Ben-Gurion on, Israeli thinkers and statesmen have been trying to both draw up a constitution and make the country's government more effective and responsive. Their failures to make much headway -- except for a short-lived experiment to choose the prime minister by direct vote -- does not faze the 75-year-old Nazarian, who is used to hurdling obstacles.
He was born in Tehran into an impoverished family and went to work at an early age after his father died when Nazarian was 5. In 1948, he arrived in Israel three days after the country declared its independence and immediately joined a tank brigade, was seriously injured in a mine explosion and spent five months in the hospital.
After the war, he bought a truck for construction work, but soon advanced from driver to contractor. Over the next 30 years, he launched a remarkable entrepreneurial career, shuttling between Israel and Iran and establishing joint enterprises in construction equipment, electronics and sheet metal production.
At the same time, he took an active role in the Tehran Jewish community, campaigned for women's rights, aided Jewish refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan and helped Israeli diplomats escape the country when the Islamic revolution broke out.
In June 1979, Nazarian, his wife, Pouran, and their three daughters and one son left Iran for good. The family settled in Los Angeles, and hardly pausing for breath, Nazarian resumed his business career.
He took over, expanded and still co-chairs Stadco, a leading producer of high-precision tooling and parts for the aerospace industry. In 1985, he founded Omninet to develop the first mobile satellite-based data communication system, and when Omninet merged with Qualcomm in San Diego, Nazarian became a major shareholder in the pioneering cell phone company.
Nazarian currently chairs Omninet Capital, a diversified investment firm in the fields of private equity, real estate and venture capital.
As a community activist and philanthropist, he helped organize the secret emigration of Soviet Jews through Armenia to Israel and was one of the founders of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles.
Nazarian co-founded the Magbit Foundation, which has provided more than $5 million for some 5,000 students in Israel. He is a strong supporter of Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, Technion and the Weizmann Institute of Science.
Like most Iranian Jewish families, the Nazarian clan is both close-knit and extended.
"At my parents' seder, there are usually 50 family members, and at every Shabbat, they have around 10 grandchildren," Kadisha said.
Although most American and Israeli experts agree that the Jewish state's political system needs fixing, the national preoccupation with security, immigration and economic problems has so far delayed focused effort for overall reform. There is also considerable disagreement on whether a complete overhaul is required or whether some tweaking and minor adjustments will do the job.
Political scientist Bernard Reich of George Washington University, a respected authority on Middle East politics, does not believe that Israel should imitate the U.S. model. For one thing, he noted in a phone interview, "while only 50 percent of American voters go to the polls, in Israel the turnout is around 80 percent." Dividing the country into small "congressional districts [would only mean] 120 small campaigns instead of one national campaign," he said. An easier solution, Reich believes, is to raise the threshold for election to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, which now stands at 1.5 percent of the total vote for a party to qualify for one Knesset seat.
"Simply by raising the threshold to 3-5 percent, we could probably reduce the number of parties in the Knesset to six," he said.
Professor Asher Arian of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem argues that the presidential electoral system works all right for large federal nations like the United States and Russia, "but that the proportional system has proved more effective for most countries most of the time."
Israel, he said, "has had effective leadership under Ben-Gurion, Begin, [Itzhak] Rabin and [Ariel] Sharon. Israel's deadlocks stem more from hard policy choices than from some deficiency in the form of government, he continued, adding, "There is much to be reformed, but there are no quick fixes."
On the other hand, professor Yehezkel Dror, founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem, has come to the conclusion that Israel "needs a coherent presidential system, despite "its many defects."
Writing this month in the Jerusalem Post, Dror argues that "radical and coherent electoral reform is a must," and that a modified presidential system will strengthen Israel by freeing it from "the tyranny of the status quo."
CECI's black-tie inaugural dinner on Oct. 3 will be held at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Among announced guests of honor are such Israeli personalities as Ambassador Alon Pinkas, Avinoam Armoni of the Hebrew University, Knesset member Michael Eitan, David Menashri of Tel Aviv University, Shamir and former ministers Dalia Rabin-Pelossof and Matan Vilnai.
For information, call (310) 300-4100 or visit www.ceci.org.il/eng .