In Israel, Rescuing Government from Itself

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In this article from The Jewish Week, Dr. Arye Carmon, co-founder and president of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), discusses how the lack of a constitution is an internal existential threat to Israel. In an effort to change anti-political sentiments in society the IDI is creating a forum, due to meet on Oct. 25th for the first time. Dr. Carmon's approach is inclusive and integrative, not alienating as he describes the current system. His goals include such remedies as one-ballot elections and a Constitution by Consensus.

Arye Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), says that one of Israel's most serious existential threats comes not from Iran or the Arab world but from within.

A longtime leading figure in the movement for electoral reform, Carmon, who was in New York last week, said that the Israeli political/electoral system — or lack of it — has caused the public to lose trust in its leaders. For the last eight years, he said, studies show that trust continues to decline, due largely to corruption scandals and a growing sense that polls and parties care more about self-interest than the collective good.

"The public feels that politics is 'theirs,' meaning the politicians', and not 'ours,'" according to Carmon. And that, he said, is a dangerous thing, adding to a sense of "anti-political sentiment" that could spell the end of the parliamentary system.

In an effort to change such attitudes, the IDI is creating a forum, due to meet Oct. 25 for the first time, comprised of 90 leading legal, academic and former government and judicial leaders to advise the Knesset on the foundations of democracy.

"We hope it will establish authority and gain the respect of the public," Carmon said.

But shouldn't the Knesset be the body to establish a group to give it advice? And does it even welcome such advice?

That remains to be seen, Carmon implied. But it was clear that Knesset members were not about to form a group to tell it how to reform itself. After all, the results could mean shortened careers for the members now enjoying power.

One can see how the government is paralyzed by narrow-issue parties within the coalition, so that this past week for example, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced plans to allow building 455 new housing units in West Bank communities before approving a settlement freeze. The seemingly contradictory move was motivated by politics, throwing a bone to both the right and left elements of the coalition.

In essence, the centrist efforts of any Israeli government are stymied by the small parties that need to be paid off, politically and at times financially, for their support.

This is no way to run a country, and the demographics are not encouraging. Carmon noted that 27 percent of Israeli Jewish second graders attend ultra-Orthodox schools, where democracy is not taught. And those numbers are expected to increase by one-third in the next 15 years.

The Arab Israeli population, now at 22 percent of the country, is expected to near 30 percent in the next 15 years.

"Our approach is inclusivity," Carmon asserted. The goal is to integrate, not alienate.

The single most important goal for now, he said, is to ensure one-ballot elections (rather than voting twice — for parties and for prime minister — as was done from 1996 to 2003, which further splintered the government). Also crucial, Carmon said, was raising the threshold in elections to 4 percent of the vote, so that parties would have to win at least five seats, and have the head of the party with the most votes become prime minister immediately, without waiting to cobble together a coalition and gain approval from the president of the state. (If that were the law now, Tzipi Livni would be prime minister, since her Kadima party won more seats than Netanyahu's Likud.)

The IDI also would like to institute regional elections and a Constitution by Consensus, since Israel does not have a Constitution. The consensus would reflect the basic values of the populace, based on tolerance and compromise.

Carmon said reforms are most likely to happen either at a time of political crisis or around election time. But he is well aware of the lack of political motivation among Knesset members to jeopardize their own careers and of the electorate, which is so fed up with the status quo.

Is he simply an eternal optimist? he was asked.

"Do I have a choice?" he replied. 

This article first appeared in The Jewish Week and has been reprinted with permission.