No lame ducks in Israel

NEW START: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the opening winter session of the Knesset.
NEW START: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the opening winter session of the Knesset. AFP/Getty Images

For years, some of my American friends used to tease me about the parliamentary system in Israel. What kind of mess is it, they wondered, when someone wins an election but can’t govern because he has to form a coalition government, comprising parties with totally different agendas?

Recently, they pointed specifically at the fact that while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, accepted the principle of a two-state solution, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a member of the right-wing Jewish Home party, in a speech at Merkaz HaRav yeshiva (high-learning religious school) on Jerusalem Day (May 27), said that, “There will be just one state between the Jordan River and the sea, and that is the state of Israel.”

Ariel doesn’t only say things that might contradict his prime minister, but as someone who is committed to settlement in the West Bank, he builds extensively there, with occasional spasms of settlement expansion that enrage the U.S. administration, precisely when Netanyahu needs some quiet on this front.

In the United States, my transcontinental friends told me, such a minister would be shown the door in five minutes. In the American system, they lectured, the winner takes it all, and once in the White House, he can form a government of loyal supporters, which enables him to govern.

Furthermore, my friends continued in praise of the American system, a president is elected for four years, sometimes for eight, during which he can govern without worrying about his political survival. In the Israeli system, on the other hand, a prime minister can always be toppled by a parliamentary ambush.

I used to defend our parliamentary system by arguing that it forces people from different parties to listen to each other, negotiate, bargain and then compromise. Maybe we pay for this with a loss of efficiency and stability, but our system doesn’t polarize our society like the situation in the United States, where after the election of a Republican president the Democrats feel that the country was hijacked by a fascist warmonger, and if a Democrat wins, then the Republicans conclude that the White House has been taken by a defeatist communist.

As for stability, I concede that the American system has it merits, because it allows a president to carry out long-term programs. However, if the voters discover that on Election Day that they have made a grave mistake, there is nothing they can do for full four years. The Israeli system, on the other hand, is more flexible and responsive, thus allowing us to try to change the government whenever enough of us feel that it has failed miserably.

I’m still waiting for a call from my American friends to discuss the results of the recent midterm election. I’m eager to hear what they have to say about a lame-duck president who — in the coming two long years — would be capable of doing absolutely nothing about the issues that matter most to his fellow Americans, because a confrontational Congress would surely obstruct him.

Having said that, I have to admit that if something triggers my envy in the American system, it is the U.S. Constitution, aptly described by British Prime Minister William Gladstone as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”

For more than 200 years, it has ensured the separation of the three branches of government and stood firm against attempts of the executive branch to usurp power.

In Israel, we missed the golden opportunity to enact a constitution in 1948, when the state of Israel was born. Now what we have is Basic Laws, which are difficult — but not impossible for any circumstantial majority — to amend or repel. Still, they are the closest to a constitution that we can get.

However, when they are desperately needed, these Basic Laws turn out to be not as strong as a constitution. A year ago, the Israeli Supreme Court decided unanimously that a bill allowing the state to hold African asylum seekers in custody, without trial, for three years, contradicted Israel’s Basic Law: human dignity and liberty. Members of Knesset from the right responded by initiating a motion to allow the Knesset to uphold laws repelled by the Supreme Court. In a country like Israel, constantly threatened and facing such awesome challenges, the weakening of the Supreme Court might be the beginning of a slippery slope.

Here is an idea. When my American friends call, I’ll offer them a swap: Try our parliamentary system for awhile. It will do you good to learn to search for common ground. In return, lend us your Constitution. It will remind us what a true democracy is. Isn’t that a win-win deal?