Ten years ago, an American friend visited the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), in Jerusalem, where I worked. The President of IDI, Dr. Arik Carmon, was just celebrating his triumph in pulling down the direct election system, by which Israelis, on Election Day, could cast two votes: one for the prime minister and the other for a party of their liking. This was a disastrous system which only added to the fragmentation of the already split Israeli political scene.
My American friend tried to follow the heated discussion at the institute, and finally gave up, summing up: “The parliamentary system sucks.”
I asked him to explain. “In your system, someone who gets more votes than the other candidates, tries to form a coalition government with all those tiny parties. If he ever succeeds, then he can’t govern, because they will undermine him. An Israeli government can fall any minute. All an Israeli prime minister can accomplish is to survive politically. Nothing more.
“In the American system,” he said proudly, “once a guy is elected for president, that’s it. For the next four years, sometimes even eight, unless he is impeached, you can’t topple him. That’s how he can get things done.”
Looking back at the George W. Bush era, I wonder what my friend thinks today about the idea of a president being able to “get things done.” Does this mean involving the United States in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, allegedly fighting terrorism, while American experts maintain that those wars were counterproductive to fighting terrorism?
Or, for that matter, inheriting a balanced budget (or even a surplus) from President Clinton and handing over the presidency to President Obama with a huge deficit? Or letting Swine Capitalism roam around free so that millions of Americans should lose their homes and jobs?
We didn’t know all that 10 years ago, and, anyway, at the time I was more interested in the fundamentals of American elections rather than in their political consequences. This was just after the 2000 elections, and many of us in Israel were wondering how come Bush was elected president while more Americans had voted for Al Gore. Again, my American friend was happy to explain.
“You see,” he said, “we have this indirect elections system, by which you vote for a candidate for president, but if more people in your state vote for the other candidate, then he gets all the votes of the Electoral College of that state, ‘the winner takes it all,’ you know, and then . . .”
“Not so fast,” I said, “tell me more about this Electoral College. Seems a bit odd to me.”
“Well, it goes back to the Founding Fathers,” he said. “They wanted a system by which the small states should not be overshadowed by the big ones.” Suspecting that his answer wasn’t too satisfactory, he added with an apologizing smile: “I guess they also didn’t trust the voters to come up with a ‘wise’ decision, so they decided to filter it through the electors, those distinguished, experienced, people, who know better.”
I knew exactly what he meant. At the time we at IDI were trying to push for a constitution for Israel, and I remember someone quoting one of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 as saying that letting the American people decide who will be the president is like putting a blind man through a colors test.
“So let me see if I got it right,” I said to him. “We in Israel have just gotten rid of an election system which hadn’t been working for us. You, on the other hand, are stuck forever with an obsolete system, which you can’t change, because of the majorities needed to do it, both in the states and in the House. Furthermore, thanks to this strange system, Gore, who got half a million more votes than Bush but some 500 less than him in Florida, was sent home. And if this is not enough, then it was the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the hand recount in Florida, rather than the free will of the American people, which decided who will be the president.”
“No, no, no,” he objected, “not so simple. Let me explain.” To his credit, he did try.
This decade-old exchange comes to mind not only because the close presidential race today might produce yet another awkward electoral situation, but because of what my friend told me about the need for a prime minister in Israel, unlike the American president, to form a coalition government, and the weaknesses that it generates.
It seems to me that with all its faults, the Israeli parliamentary system, where immediately after the election the winner has to sit down with his former rivals and strike a deal and compromise, is much less polarizing than the American system, where a victorious president can be bogged down by a confrontational House and is hated by half of his people.
A good compromise, while leaving both sides equally dissatisfied, allows them to move on. After all, it was the Electoral College compromise which was brokered on the last week of the Constitutional Convention, which saved it from a serious deadlock and maybe collapse. While obviously not perfect, and in need of change, until recently this electoral compromise has served the American democracy well for a long time.
Uri Dromi lives in Jerusalem.