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Jewish Journal

Moves to reform Israel’s political system on the rise

by Tom Tugend

October 12, 2006 | 8:00 pm

'Settling An Argument'.  Norman Rockwell, 1922

'Settling An Argument'. Norman Rockwell, 1922

Are Israelis constitutionally incapable of agreeing on a constitution to govern their country?
 
Possibly.
 
"Throughout Jewish history, we have always been a disputatious people, and in Israel, everyone thinks he or she is a prime minister. It's part of our nature," observed historian Tuvia Friling of Ben-Gurion University, a former state archivist and head of the Ben-Gurion Institute for Humanities and Social Studies.
 
The State of Israel, which has struggled since its inception to balance the often conflicting demands of national security and democratic rights, has some valuable lessons for a United States wrestling with the same problems since Sept. 11.
 
"Israel has been a laboratory on how to fight terrorists while maintaining civil rights and the rule of law," according to Uri Dromi.
 
Retired Col. Dromi has observed the lab experiment from different perspectives. A 25-year Israeli air force veteran, he served as chief government spokesman under Prime Ministers Itzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres and is now director of international outreach for the Israel Democracy Institute, a liberal-leaning private think tank.
 
"Before 9/11, America, the FBI and the CIA were laid back," observed Dromi during an interview in his Jerusalem office. "Since 9/11, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme."
 
He finds it ironic that Israel, long criticized by U.S. journalists for not observing legal "due process" in battling terrorists, may now be more observant of due process than Washington.
 
"In Israel, an enemy prisoner can be held only for a specific time, all executive decisions are subject to judicial review and any Palestinian can appeal his case to the Israeli Supreme Court," said Dromi.
 
There would be a national wave of protests if the Israeli government forced phone companies to turn over the records of private citizens, he predicted.
 
That is not to say that Israel has a perfect record and hasn't made any mistakes, which could be fruitfully studied in Washington.
 
"For many years, we demolished houses belonging to the families of terrorists," Dromi said. "We learned that for the long haul, this didn't work as a deterrent to terrorism, and the Supreme Court eventually put an end to the practice."
 
Criticism, even by outside parties, is healthy, Dromi believes, an opinion that may not be shared by many of his countrymen.
 
"We should be grateful to the criticism by Amnesty International, which forced us to examine what we are doing," he said.
 
Israel, which has nowhere near the resources of the United States, has learned to make a virtue of necessity.
 
"We can't afford a number of competing intelligence services, so we have only a single unified one," he said.
 
Most of the Israeli efforts in this field are directed toward human intelligence on the ground. If Dromi had one piece of advice for President Bush, it would be to stop spending billions on high-tech surveillance methods and put the money into old-fashioned agents, spies and infiltrators.
 
Dromi also feels that Washington spends too much money on the Department of Homeland Security, "mainly to impress the public. In Israel, the work is mainly handled by the established police department."
 
In some areas, the United States does better than Israel.
 
"You have a more efficient chain of command than we have, and our military has too much influence," he said. "The most influential person in the country is not the prime minister but the chief of staff."
 
Above all, Dromi said, the chief weapon in any nation's arsenal is the high morale of the people.
 
"A government has to see to it that the people don't become paranoid," he said. "If they panic, you have to calm them down. It is vital to create an ongoing public debate on the proper balance between security and democracy."
 
-- TT
"To produce a constitution also requires a certain process of maturation," added Friling. "Maybe in 200 years, we'll be ready."
 
Friling, one of a number of political analysts and scholars interviewed for this story in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, may sound a mite pessimistic. On the other hand, it's been 60 years since the United Nations inserted a condition in the Palestine partition vote demanding that the new Jewish state draw up a constitution. Lack of such a fundamental document frustrated founding father David Ben-Gurion's repeated attempts to change Israel's dysfunctional electoral system.
 
"Basically, the Israeli political system was designed in the 19th century by a small group of Zionists, who represented 2 percent of the Jewish people," said professor Gideon Doron of Tel Aviv University, president of the Israeli Association of Political Science.
 
Underlying many of Israel's problems, argued Doron and others, 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 a majority of voters, small parties proliferate and the survival of any government is dependent on unstable coalitions.
 
Thus, in the state's 58-year history, Israel has had 31 governments and only two prime ministers (Golda Meir and Menachem Begin) out of 12 who have served their full four-year terms of office without having to reconstruct their coalitions.
 
No less a figure than Israel's President Moshe Katsav complained last February that "the moment a government is elected, there is talk of turmoil, instability, insecure coalitions and apprehension of its dissolution."
 
In addition to its inherent instability in a country facing constant existential dangers, the system weakens government accountability to its citizens.
 
"Knesset members are not elected in specific districts and therefore are not responsive to constituents. There are no petitions to redress grievances and very little grass-roots democracy or private civic action," said Doron. "We have no town hall meetings or PTAs."
 
One explanation for the lack of private civic initiative was given by this writer's sister-in-law, Shoshanah Gaatone, in Tel Aviv, whose street fronts the entrance to Tel Aviv University, where her husband and many of her neighbors work.
 
A few years ago, the municipality decided, without hearings or announcements, to change the street's name from University Avenue to Chaim Levanon Street in honor of a Tel Aviv mayor of the 1950s. Gaatone organized a small local group to protest the name change but quickly grew frustrated and gave up. The Tel Aviv City Council is also elected by party slates, rather than by neighborhood districts, she explained, so no one in the municipal government felt responsible for addressing the issue of responding to her letters.
 
Since Israel's establishment, there have been numerous advocates for electoral reform and the drafting of a constitution, but given the country's constant military, political and social crises, it has been close to impossible to focus the attention of the citizenry or the government on such long range issues.
 
The encouraging news is that a growing number of think tanks, many supported by American philanthropists, have stepped up their lobbying efforts to reform the system. They have achieved some modest success, although they have not coalesced into a national movement.
 
In September of last year, Katsav established the President of Israel's Commission for Examination of the Structure of Governance in Israel and appointed 71 commission members, representing most sectors of Israeli society.
 
At the time, Katsav warned that "the mounting elitism of the power structure and power instability can undermine the strength of democracy more than security threats."
 
Last month, the commission gave its report to Katsav, who will present final recommendations to the Knesset at the end of October. In addition, the president has received this year separate and voluminous analyses from the Citizens' Empowerment Center in Israel, Israel Democracy Institute, the Institute for Zionist Strategies and the Knesset Constitution Law and Justice Committee.
 
While the experts generally agree on the shortcomings of the present political system, there are considerable disagreements on solutions, not only among different reports but also among the authors of the same report.
 
On the key issue, some argue for adoption or adaptation of the American presidential system, others for the British parliamentary system and still others for variations or combinations of these and other democratic procedures.
 
Among the top priorities of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) is the inclusion of a bill of rights for individual citizens, as well as clarification of Shabbat and marriage laws, Uri Dromi, an IDI director, said during an interview at his Tel Aviv office.
 
While IDI advocates a "constitution by consensus," with lots of give and take among conflicting interest groups, the Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI) urges more drastic intervention.
 
Doron, a leading figure in both CECI and the Katzav presidential commission, believes that political stability is Israel's foremost need. To achieve it, CECI has embarked on a national educational campaign to familiarize the public with a proposed electoral system that would divide Israel into six regions and 120 districts, each district electing its own representative to the Knesset.
 
Doron also proposes a stricter separation of powers to raise the standing of the legislative branch, now considered by many as too dependent on the executive and judicial branches. He also urges stronger individual property rights.
 
"Today, 96 percent of the land is owned by the state, which means that homeowners can only rent from the government the land their houses stand on," Doron said.
 
CECI was founded and is largely underwritten by Los Angeles entrepreneur and philanthropist Izak Parvis Nazarian. He is a native of Iran, was wounded as a tank driver in Israel's War of Independence and has made a fortune in the high-tech industry and as a venture capitalist. Israel's reformers hope that more Diaspora figures like Nazarian will support their efforts through financial and intellectual contributions.
 
Inscribing a copy of his book for an American reporter, Doron wrote, "Help us to help ourselves."
 
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