RSS Feeds
The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil,    but because of the people who don't do anything about it    
Occupation magazine - Commentary

Home page  back Print  Send To friend

Israeli Election 2006: Kicking the System
Israeli Election 2006: Kicking the System

Assaf Oron, April 2006

My pretext for writing this essay was a talk commissioned by Kadima (the real one – - not the bubble-party just elected to run Israel!), which I could not deliver due to personal schedule conflicts. In lieu of this, I attach the following pieces of analysis. I hope you’ll find them useful. Assaf

0. Headline Summary

Final Seat Allocation (120 total, as reported April 5) – Kadima 29, Labor 19, Shas 12, Likud 12, ‘Liberman’ (Russians) 11, National Union 9, ‘Gimlaim’ (retirees) 7, ‘Aguda’ 6, Meretz 5, Raam (Arab) 4, Hadash (Arab-Jewish) 3, Balad (Arab) 3.

Ehud Olmert of Kadima formally charged with setting up a government based on a coalition of at least 61 seats. This is usually completed in 1-2 months.

These elections have been marked by apathy in the streets, voter disgust, and voters’ preoccupation with domestic issues. Turnout was the lowest ever for parliamentary elections (63.2%).

Biggest Losers: Likud and its leader Bibi Netanyahu. They suffered from the split that created Kadima, and from the public’s outrage over the Bush-style anti-poor, pro-rich policies practiced by Netanyahu as finance minister in 2003-2005 (hereafter dubbed ‘Bibinomics’).

Biggest Winners: The retirees’ party. After several unsuccessful attempts to enter Knesset, they stormed in with 7 seats, carried mostly on protest votes against the Establishment parties and against anti-elderly ‘Bibinomics’.

Other: As expected, Likud’s ‘centrist’ spin-off Kadima won the most votes, but its power much smaller than forecasted (last polls before elections showed ~35 seats). Labor stopped its decade-long slide, but didn’t advance. ‘Sectorial’ parties (e.g. the Russians, the Arab, the ultra-Orthodox, etc.) did better than ‘ideological’ parties of the Right and Left. The rejectionist-fundamentalist camp is at its weakest in 30 years, with 50 seats split into 5 medium-size factions.

Consensus Outlook: It will be very hard for Olmert’s government to survive beyond a couple of years, let alone carry out his ambitious promises.

1. Checks and Balances, Israeli Style

The Runaway Executive

Many analysts wrongly concluded that 2006 voters’ focus on domestic issues is a form of escapism. On the contrary, this shows a healthy realism. It seems that voters believe that if they make the government more accountable, compassionate and honest, it will probably do better on the Palestinian issue as well. But it’s not easy to make the Israeli government accountable and honest.

Israel has no constitution. Israelis usually gloss over this fact, blaming the power of the Orthodox as the main culprit (everything in Israel is blamed on the Orthodox, on the poor Mizrahim, or on the Arabs – the educated and wealthy elites rarely take responsibility for any problem). But in fact, it is the power of the Executive that prevents a constitution. Analysts also happily point out that the British too have no constitution, and that they’re doing fine. But Israel’s story doesn’t end there. Ironically, Israel’s government runs mostly on the basis of emergency decrees issued by the British in 1945 to battle Jewish guerilla and terror. Our government periodically reaffirms the emergency, and therefore the decrees can be used. Of course, the recurring wars and security crises leave the public in a permanent ‘post-9/11’ like mentality of existential fear, in which the perennial state of emergency seems to make sense. In this state of mind, the military and the numerous secret services are practically above the law.

Emergency decrees also grant ministers the power to issue executive orders with no oversight, a power that is abused even in day-to-day civil contexts. For example, in spring 2000 Barak’s government embarked on a tax reform, including a first-ever taxation of savings accounts. To prevent citizens from moving money out of these accounts, they issued an immediate executive order closing all banks for 24 hours. This was done at a time of quiet and prosperity. No one protested this robbery and violation of basic rights, because the act was perceived in Israel as the natural right of the Executive.

During the 80’s and 90’s there were attempts to suggest a constitution, but they got stuck: either you strike out the emergency-decree system and bring the ‘security’ universe under control, and the entire government will have to literally re-learn how to walk - or you don’t, and the document produced may be called a “constitution”, but it won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on. There exist some so-called “fundamental laws” supposed to be a piece-meal constitution and hailed at the time as a “constitutional revolution”. In practice, all these laws have huge ‘security’ and ‘emergency’ loopholes in them, and besides - whenever the Executive wanted to revise them, they got revised at its whim.

Add to this our pre-independence ethos that glorifies law-breaking and gaming the system – an ethos that is very much alive and kicking – and the existence of wealthy, powerful proxy-Executive bodies unaccountable to the state, like the Jewish Agency and the JNF - and Israel seems like a “Team Bush” dreamland: a pseudo-democratic land of The Unitary Executive.

But perhaps like in Bush’s case, the ‘unitary’ person formally in charge very quickly discovers how little he can control this Multi-Headed Executive-Gone-Wild. Already when Israel was but a few years old, one of our secret agencies had the gall to set up a terrorism network in Egypt, using Egyptian Jews (two of them were executed in 1955 and are known in Israel as the Cairo Martyrs). This became Israel’s longest political scandal, with governments collapsing and the question “Who Gave the Order” flung hither and thither - while the public was kept in the dark about the whole “affair” for many long years. Meanwhile, more and more such ‘orders’ which no one ‘gives’ continued to march by.1

The entire fiasco of Occupation is an ‘un-given order’. The Multi-Headed Executive has devised ingenious ways to obtain extra territories, control and exploit the people there, bribe our citizens to move there - and most impressively, to avoid paying the economic and international price. But along the way it was forgotten, that the supposed sovereign – the public – was never properly asked and never really gave its clear consent, and that for at least 25 years now it has not really been interested in this project anymore. The Occupation’s early years as seen from this perspective, are meticulously detailed in G. Gorenberg’s new book, “An Accidental Empire”.

The Executive and the Legislative

In Israel there is very little separation of powers. The government is formed out of a coalition guaranteeing Knesset majority. The prime minister and most ministers are Knesset members. When the government is stable, the Knesset becomes its rubber stamp – as was the case in Israel’s Labor-dominated first 30 years. Again, people may point out England as the model for this system; well, bad example. This flawed system is exactly why Blair managed to drag England into the Iraq invasion, and keep at it for 3 years running, against the opinion of the vast majority of Britons and without losing his Parliament majority.

In the Israeli version there is no clear line dividing the Legislative from the Executive. Rather, there are concentric circles of influence: the Knesset; the coalition (where most members perceive themselves more as minister-wannabes than as legislators); the government plenum, which holds very little power; the ‘senior cabinet’ composed of roughly half the ministers; and finally, elusive groups of 1-5 people, known in various names such as ‘the kitchenette’, where some critical decisions are actually made (even more decisions, as explained above, happen completely outside these circles).

The Executive and the Judiciary

The Judiciary is the only relatively independent branch. But its prestige is blown way out of proportion. It chose to limit itself to certain narrow domains, most notably the religious-secular divide and some aspects of corruption. Even on corruption, the Judiciary’s independence is greatly marred by the fact that decisions on indictment of high officials are ultimately determined by Israel’s analogue to the White House Counsel (imagine Alberto Gonzales deciding whether to indict Scooter Libby!).

Anyway, on the big questions, especially the Occupation, the Supreme Court really blew it, showing its lack of independence from the ‘security’ and ‘emergency’ mindset. Since the 1970’s peace and human-rights groups have brought all key aspects of the Occupation and the settlement project before the Court; it could have chosen not to deal with them, claiming they are outside Israel proper. Instead, the Court took the cases, and upheld the Occupation and settlements as legal in each and every case – usually relying on the government’s ‘security’ arguments, even when these arguments were patently absurd and offered in bad faith. The Court settles for cosmetic changes and ‘humanitarian’ interventions in particularly egregious or bad-PR cases.

Last but not least, the Judiciary is disturbingly at ease with the hideous system of “military justice” administered to Occupied Palestinians: kangaroo courts where most defendants are not even represented, where sentences are Draconian, and where most convictions and plea-bargains are based on confessions extracted via illegal means. This system is clearly subjugated to the Executive, yet this doesn’t seem to bother anyone – least of all that famous beacon of justice, Aharon Barak.

Enter the Elections: the People’s Check and Balance

In 1977 Israeli voters discovered that replacing the ruling party is possible. The 1977 election turnover was Israel’s first true exercise of a check or a balance. Ever since, Israel’s politics have been the push-and-pull of the public trying to get more accountability from its government, and the parties trying to revert back to the happy days of Runaway Executive. In 1981 when Begin was about to be ousted after a single term, he discovered a magic formula: inciting one half of Israelis – the Mizrahim – against the other. He succeeded in getting narrowly re-elected. For the next decade, neither Likud nor Labor gave a hoot about performance or accountability: all they needed was to beat the tribal drums in election time. The parties managed to neutralize the public – but at a steep price: the perennially-tied parliament led to governmental paralysis.

In 1990, after a particularly ugly series of horse-trading left the country without a functioning government for months, the public had enough. A grassroots movement demanding an immediate change to the system (in which I participated as an activist) drew overwhelming support from all sectors. The vision was sweeping, and included a full constitution and removal of the emergency-decree system. But the politicians managed to kill the movement softly by co-opting it, and all that was left in the end was one law passed in 1991 – setting up direct elections for the prime minister.2 Israelis now got to make two choices in the general elections – a party and a national leader.

The first such elections were held in 1996, and Bibi narrowly won. The widely-held expectation was that freed from the stranglehold of his coalition, the Executive would be more powerful and effective. However, people discovered immediately to their surprise that it was rather the Legislative that sprang to new life. First, the power of small and “sectorial” parties increased even further. Second, since the government wasn’t at risk of falling after losing a parliamentary vote anymore, the Executive found himself having to negotiate each and every issue with the Knesset, including even his own party.

In other words, a separation of powers (no matter how imperfect) was finally designed into the system, and immediately bore fruit.

They didn’t like it. Instead of blaming poor management (and in retrospect, Israelis agree that both Bibi and Barak, elected under this system, happened to be terrible PM’s), critics blamed the new system for the country’s continuing troubles. And so, Sharon’s first act when he came into power in 2001 was to amass the required Knesset majority and cancel the law. We are back to the old system, and Sharon did manage to get a big ruling party again. Thanks to this and to the terror waves, he became a Unitary Executive of the kind not seen in Israel for decades. Power literally emanated from him. Under his shadow, Bibi was free to experiment with “Bibinomics”, Limor Livnat was free to wreck the education system, and everyone could indulge in rampant corruption.

But as soon as Sharon was politically dead, the public has surprisingly claimed power again, and in 2006 it made sure that no party gets too big to forget that. Voters acted mostly by democratic instinct. The “change the system” wars of the 90’s seem like medieval history – long forgotten and buried beneath newer traumas. The only talk about tinkering with the system came from Kadima and Liberman’s right-wing party, each (surprise, surprise!) seeking a way to make the Executive more powerful again.

2. Epilogue: Now What?

In the 2006 elections, the Israeli public made a step back towards its true self. In the elections of 2001 and 2003 it behaved as if “under the influence” – and indeed it was, under the influence of an immediate existential fear. This fear was so strong, that voters did not think critically about their government; like a frightened child, they looked for the man wielding the biggest axe to protect them, make them feel safe again (if you doubt this observation, all you need to do is think about Americans’ voting patterns in 2002 and 2004, and how much sense they made). Now the fear has subsided and the man with the axe is gone. And the public has again communicated to its politicians that it trusts none of them, and may toss them the next time around if they don’t shape up. Voters now keep the cards close to their body until the last moment. About 30% of the voters made up their mind in the last 4 days. Less than 20% professed unconditional loyalty to any single party. Combined with roughly 1 in 5 regular voters who chose to stay out this time, there is a huge contingent ready to punish parties or reward them next time around.

However, this “management by election” is not very effective and is very frustrating for the voters. Reality happens mostly between elections. In the absence of robust checks and balances, the politicians are guaranteed to wreck things again. It only took a few days after the elections to demonstrate this: rather than join forces and build a center-left coalition reflecting voters’ clear message, both Kadima and Labor wasted a week courting far-right parties behind each other’s back. It appears that the coalition will be way more right-wing than it should be – which is the case after most elections.

How does this affect the Occupation? The Occupation is a direct by-product of Israel’s systemic flaws. Now if there was a proper government, ending the Occupation would prove a much easier task than it seems now, and would probably be at the top of that government’s list. But at this moment, Israelis’ avenue to proper governance appears all but blocked.

1 If this seems like ancient history, think again. In the 1980’s the story repeated itself: another secret agency hired Jonathan Pollard to spy in the US – apparently without government approval. Ironically, in 2006 this has turned full circle, with that agency’s sacked head – one Raffi Eitan – emerging as these elections’ big winner, elected to Knesset as the head of the retiree’s party, and may end up a senior cabinet minister.

2 This law itself was passed in uniquely Israeli style. Likud, whose voters overwhelmingly supported the law, has called party discipline against it (Bibi, by the way, broke party ranks and voted for it); Labor, whose voters were less enthusiastic, called a discipline for it. Then the vote – carried out in the wee hours - was declared a tie, contrary to calculations which showed it narrowly passing. In the mayhem that ensued, numerous amendments to it were easily passed. Then much later, it was revealed that one elderly ultra-Orthodox MK had fallen asleep in the middle, then woke up and mistakenly voted twice against the law. So it was declared passed after the fact, with the distorting amendments in place. This is how Israel’s most critical “Fundamental Law” came into being.

Links to the latest articles in this section

After Gaza `Massacre` Israeli Parliament Proposes Bill to Ban Photographing, Recording Soldiers
Until the Palestinian issue is settled, there will always be a crack in Israel’s foundations
Ehud Barak on the crisis in Israel: ‘Netanyahu has to resign’