Categorized | Lurie_J_Zel, Middle East, USA

The problems of U.S., Israeli politics

By J. Zel Lurie

J. Zel Lurie

J. Zel Lurie

DELRAY BEACH, Florida — It may seem foolish to criticize Israeli democracy at a time when the Speaker of the American House of Representatives has to resign his post in order to prevent Republican hardliners from closing down the government.

Our forefathers of over 200 years ago devised a Constitution in which the executive, congressional, and judiciary departments were separate but they overlapped. Control of the budget was put in the hands of the House of Representatives because in theory it was truly democratic and therefore they should control the money. I say in theory because over the years, Republican-dominated state legislators have shifted the boundaries of the states’ congressional districts so that a minority of Republican voters can win the majority of seats in the House. Take Florida for instance where millions of Democratic voters in Broward County are surrounded by Republican enclaves that wraps around them like a sausage, and go north until they find another Republican enclave.

This resulted in a Republican majority in the House which is divided between hardliners who want to reduce the power of the Executive Branch and the Republican Moderates in Pennsylvania for instance who say that Congress is full of people who can’t say yes. Two years ago, they shut down the government for sixteen days. Speaker Boehner suffered agonies trying to keep his party together.

At age 65, he decided he won’t do it again. He has resigned which makes it possible for Democrats and Moderate Republicans to fund the government until the end of the year.

Israel Democracy is a horse of a different color, breed, and gait.  Like many European countries and the United Kingdom and Australia, the Parliament or Knesset is paramount. It rules the Executive and all branches of government. It doesn’t work well in Israel.

In the United Kingdom, Labor and the Conservatives dominate the Parliament. In Israel, the two leading parties, Likud and Labor (The Zionist Union) got less than half the votes in the last election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the leading candidate with less than a fourth of the votes. He was reelected and he scrambled for five months to form a coalition which would get a majority in the Knesset.

For five months, the Israel government was in limbo while Netanyahu was blackmailed by a series of small parties who agreed to enter the coalition if their parties received large subsidies from the government and/or they were handed powerful ministries like justice and education where they could do much harm. For instance, the new minister of justice is a representative of a small party with about 8% of the votes.  She wants to make the Supreme Court less independent and more subject to the Knesset. The same party also snagged a minister of agriculture who has proclaimed his opposition to peace with the Palestinians.

All together, Netanyahu has formed a terrible government with a majority of a single vote. So Israel’s terrible record of five expensive elections in thirteen years could easily become six elections.

Each election brings new faces to the Knesset.  In the current Knesset, 40% of the seats are occupied by fresh lawmakers with no experience in the Knesset.

Israel retains its reputation of being the only democracy in the Middle East, but it is definitely not a good example. Five elections in 13 years plus a sixth waiting in the wings is not an example any other country would want to follow.

An institute for Democracy in Jerusalem, an independent think tank, has studied the problem.   The solution is simple.  A prime minister should be elected for 4 years, and the provision that his coalition be approved by the majority of the Knesset should be abolished.

It is extremely unlikely that the current Knesset would lessen Israel’s democracy by approving these radical changes.

Yohanan Plessner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), hopes that eventually the Israeli electorate would be mature enough to form two major blocs, one liberal, and one conservative.

He may have to wait until the current pupils in the seven Arab-Jewish primary schools grow up.

There is an additional factor that impinges on Israeli democracy. First of all, there are the Palestinian citizens of Israel whom the Israeli government statistician places at 20% of the electorate. The United Arab List is now the third largest group in the Knesset. In addition, there are half a million residents of Israel enjoying all social and economic amenities who are not eligible to vote. These include the Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem, the Druse in the Golan Heights, black African immigrants, legal and illegal, and guest workers mainly from Thailand, Nepal, and Romania.

I have always been a supporter of democracy, but Israel suffers from what might be called excess democracy. Five elections, five new Knessets in 13 years are just too much. From time to time, the IDI proposes a minor improvement, but no overall solution is likely in the near future.

Still Israel retains its reputation as the only democracy in the Middle East.

Lurie, a centenarian, is a freelance writer with long experience in covering the Middle East.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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