IDI President Explores Israel's 'Silent Killer' and Calls for Political Reform

In an article by Dan Pine originally published in J.Weekly on November 5, 2009, IDI President Dr. Arye Carmon describes Israel's internal domestic developments as its greatest existential threats and stresses the urgent need for political reform.

Arye Carmon spends his days warning of "existential threats" to Israel. Not just the usual dangers from terrorism or a nuclear Iran. Rather, internal domestic developments he compares to high blood pressure.

"I use the metaphor of the silent killer," Carmon says. "You don't see blood, bombshells and suicide bombers, but clearly you see how the system cracks."

He means Israel's political system, which he views as dysfunctional to the point of destroying "the foundations of the government. It has debilitated the power of big parties to form strong coalitions and lead."

Carmon has tried to do something about it. In 1991 he co-founded the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, for which he still serves as president. The IDI is an independent think tank that aims to strengthen Israel's democratic institutions through research, debate and policy proposals.

Carmon and his colleague Mordechai Kremnitzer are in the Bay Area to give a few talks about the IDI and its mission.

The two will lay out the dangers lurking within Israel's political system, in which a handful of Knesset members from small religious parties can—and often do—hamstring the national government.

"We have seen the growing power of sectoralization," Carmon says, referring to the disproportionate parliamentary power of Israel's religious parties. "Instead of reinforcing parties that deal with the well being of the collective, we've seen the growing strength of [small] parties, which have kept governments as hostages."

By way of illustration, he points out that when Yitzhak Rabin served as prime minister, he and his Labor Party had a 42-seat plurality. Today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the country with only 27 Knesset seats for his Likud Party.

That's only one of several problems Carmon has his eye on. He also worries about the lack of civil marriage in Israel (marriage and divorce fall under the purview of Israel's Orthodox minority) and about properly converting tens of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom who may not be Jewish.

Carmon also ponders the tensions between Israel's fight against terrorism and the desire to maintain democratic institutions. It's a debate Americans had in the aftermath of 9/11, when the Patriot Act and other anti-terror measures appeared to trample constitutional rights, according to some.

"Israel does not have a Constitution," he says, "so we do not have that solid foundation that binds the ground rules in any political system ... Israeli society is composed of highly variegated, heterogeneous elements living in growing tensions and internal conflict."

Carmon notes that even though a majority of Israelis may favor reform, any changes will only come through acts of the Knesset. And the minority parties have covered their bases there.

"In signing the coalition agreements, they put in a veto power," he says of those religious parties. "They demand that any change in the political system will have to be based on the consensus of all members."

IDI has built its own consensus, not only among academics and politicians, but within moderate forces among the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs as well. Carmon believes there are realists even in those communities.

Last month, the IDI held a forum chaired by former Israeli Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar. With politicians, jurists, academics and business leaders in attendance, the goal was to move forward with electoral reforms.

Carmon hopes the Israeli public will pressure their elected officials to make those changes. But as someone who has been at it since 1991, he knows it will take time to change the system.

"Crying and whining is not a solution," he says. "So you have to be persistent. We have no choice." 

This article by Dan Pine was originally published in J.Weekly on November 5, 2009, entitled "Researcher fears a crack-up of Israeli democracy." It has been reposted with permission.