Getting Back on Track: A Working Program for a New Era in Israel

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Wake-Up Call - A Work Plan for a New Era in Israel

Dan Ben-David

The combination of a vision for the future of this country and work plans in the national security, socio-civic and education spheres is a necessary condition for putting Israel back on track.  But it is not enough.  There is a gaping vacuum at the top – a dearth of qualified, able and committed leaders coupled with a political system that makes this country increasingly impossible to govern.

Instability is a structural feature of Israel’s system of government. So long as the opposition sees the overthrow of the government as its primary task it is only natural that this issue becomes the primary focus of both the coalition and the opposition. Given the existing circumstances and incentives, the political system has great difficulty in addressing Israeli society’s multitude of existential problems – be they security-related or touching upon the delicate thread that holds together the country’s socio-economic fabric.  The main symptoms of this are:

·       A lack of public trust in the political system.

·       Personal corruption and very problematic governmental norms of behavior.

·       A failure by the government to honor its basic obligations.

-       Lack of law enforcement and problematic personal examples by political leaders – all of which fuel an atmosphere of increasing lawlessness in all areas of life.

-       Unequal distribution of public services in general and of social services in particular.

·       An inability to execute policies that undermines the foundations of government and stems from:

-       Frequent changes of policy.

-       Inferior planning and poor decision-making alongside a strong emphasis on the short term instead of the long run.

-       Inability to fill key positions with sufficiently qualified people.

-       Waste of public resources.

-       Lack of a culture of transparency and of serious public discussion of fundamental issues.

As a result of the above, signs of a rift between the government and large sections of the public have begun to appear – a rift that is steadily deteriorating the foundations of Israeli democracy. The objective of the Governance Work Plan is to focus on the sources of the problems besetting Israel’s political system and government, rather than dealing merely with their symptoms.

Since the structure of Israel’s political system is inherently unstable, the solution to the problem must be structural in nature.  Even visionary leaders with long-term perspectives would have major difficulties overcoming the innate problems of the current dysfunctional system of government. Hence, it is necessary to establish the basic conditions for governance: creation of fundamental systemic stability and restoration of the balance between the executive and the legislative branches. This process must be implemented in the most direct manner possible and not in the customary patchwork that passes for policy.  For example, the head of state and members of the legislature must each be elected directly by constituents for fixed terms of office.


¬      Changing the method of government.

¬      Introducing an effective system of checks and balances between the executive and the legislative branches.

¬      Reducing the number of government ministries.

¬      Establishing clear and transparent criteria that the government must operate under.

¬      Waging an unremitting war on violence, corruption and crime in general.

Policies Required for Achieving the Objectives

1.     Direct Election of the President to a Fixed Term of Office

Individuals possessing superior personal ability, public integrity and a calibrated internal compass are in very short supply among our non-extremist elected officials.  The existing political system is extremely difficult to penetrate and it severely limits the ability of those already inside to lead the country toward clear, safe and sustainable horizons.

It is a system in which the prime minister must appoint his primary political rivals (be they from his own party or from other parties) to key cabinet posts in order to survive – with all of the inherent implications that this has on his subsequent ability to govern. It is a system with built-in instability that serves as an incentive for internal and external blackmail and threats. It is a system that puts the elected officials at the mercy of their parties’ central committees rather than making them accountable to the public that voted them into office.  It is a system that is corrupting the very foundation of Israel’s government and its society.  It is a system that must be changed.

·       Israel’s coalitional form of government needs to be replaced by a presidential system.  The country will headed by a president who, together with a vice-president, will be elected to a fixed term of four years.  It will no longer be possible to bring down the government during this fixed term of office (though it will be possible to impeach under special conditions of improper behavior).

·       The president will appoint cabinet ministers according to their professional qualifications, and they must gain approval from the Knesset.  The ministers will work for the president, who will have the right to fire them if they fail to meet his expectations.

This method will enable the president to run the country together with his ministers rather than having to wage constant battles against them.  A fixed four-year term of office will give the president a reasonable period of time to implement his policies that include a broader, long-term, perspective.

2.     Direct Election of Knesset Members to Fixed Terms of Office

A natural separation between the executive and legislative branches needs to be implemented.  Ministers should no longer serve as MK’s, while MK’s should focus on their primary task of passing legislation.  Once terms of office are fixed, then the alternative of bringing down the government is no longer an option and the two branches will have to learn to live and work with one another and to produce results.  In addition, fixed terms of office will enable a transition to multi-year budgets.

·       The number of Knesset members (MK’s) should be reduced from 120 to 90, which is approximately the current number of incumbent MK’s who are not ministers or deputy ministers.

·       Rather than being elected by members of their respective party’s central committees or chosen by some other party mechanism, all MK’s will be directly elected by the district in which they reside.  This change will make the MK accountable directly to the voters in his or her constituency rather than to the political party as is the case today.

A team of internationally recognized experts should be appointed to formulate a proposal for the new electoral system. One possibility might be along the following lines:

-       30 MK’s will be elected to fixed two-year terms from 30 districts.  Each region will comprise approximately 225,000 residents and be represented by one MK.

-       30 MK’s will be elected to fixed four-year terms from three regions – the Galilee, the Negev and the Center – according to the relative weight of the region’s population, with additional weight given to the Galilee and the Negev.

-       30 MK’s will be elected to fixed six-year terms on a national basis.

Elections will be held every two years, with all the district MK’s, half the regional MK’s and a third of the national MK’s up for election in each round, thereby ensuring continuity.

In each election year the voters will vote for the candidate from their home district, for approximately 5 candidates from the region (the exact number will vary slightly according to the size of the region) and 10 national candidates.

3.     Introduction of a System of Checks and Balances between the Executive and Legislative Branches

·       The president will have the right to veto any law that conflicts with his overall policy.

-       The line-item veto will enable the president to veto specific sections of a law while passing the remaining sections.

-       The president will also have the right to veto the entire law.

·       The presidential veto may be overridden by a majority of 46 MK’s (of the 90 who will serve in the restructured Knesset) and the legislation will become law despite the president’s opposition.

4.     Reducing the Number of Government Ministries

At the time of this writing, Israel has a president, a prime minister, and 21 cabinet ministers for 19 ministries, of which 17 ministries have an incumbent minister. In order to eliminate duplication, simplify and streamline the process of implementing policy, and reduce public expenditure:

·       The posts of prime-minister and president should be abolished and replaced with the single post of president, as described above.

·       The number of ministries should be reduced to ten:

       I.  Ministry of the Economy and Employment

Will include areas currently handled by the Ministries of Industry, Trade, Employment, Agriculture, Tourism and Communications.

       II.  Ministry of Social Affairs

Will include areas currently handled by the Ministries of Health and Welfare.

      III.  Ministry of Education

Will include areas currently handled by the Ministries of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology.

     IV.  Ministry of Infrastructure

Will include areas currently handled by the Ministries of National Infrastructures, Transportation, Housing and Construction.

      V.  Ministry of Environmental Affairs

     VI.  Ministry of Interior

Will include areas currently handled by the Ministries of Interior and Immigration.

    VII.  Ministry of Defense

Will include areas currently handled by the Ministries of Defense and Internal Security.

    VIII.  Ministry of Foreign Affairs

      IX.  Ministry of Justice

      X.  Ministry of Finance

None of the ten ministers will serve as MK’s, and each will be chosen by the president. There will be no deputy ministers, but only managing-directors of ministries.

5.     Greater Emphasis on Law Enforcement and on Deterrence

The basic foundations of law and order in Israel are disintegrating.  Violence within the family, in schools and on the street is turning us into a society the likes of which we have never known and do not wish to familiarize ourselves with.  Corruption in government, in public life and in business has become an accepted norm in too many instances. The combination of lax law enforcement and lenient punishment leads to a situation in which basic civil rights are endangered.  A country that permits widespread and methodical flouting of its laws is weakening the foundations of democracy and endangering its future with its own hands.  We cannot and should not permit this descent into anarchy to continue.  The same determination with which Israel wages war against terrorism should be applied to the war on crime and corruption.  This needs to be done concurrently, and at three levels:

A.      Zero-tolerance on Violence

What began generations ago as a wink and a nod at the Israeli sabra’s unique personality – sweet on the inside, but abrasive and thorny on the outside – has long since gotten out of control. In fact, the “thorniness” was never anything more than simple chutzpah and callousness reflected in a lack of consideration for the other in all aspects of life in the country: loud and insulting behavior, inability to listen and engage in debate, hurling of insults, jumping the queue, hostility and aggression on the roads – and the list can be considerably extended.

What began as impolite behavior turned into verbal abuse that in too many instances developed into physical abuse.  Violence in the country is becoming a national plague.  It is pervasive and its level of seriousness is escalating, particularly against the weakest sections of society.  The murder and rape of children, women, and the elderly horrify us anew on a periodic basis.  What is our society coming to when trade in women – as if they were slaves – takes place today in the Jewish state?

Internalization of values such as courtesy, respect for the law, sensitivity and consideration toward others clearly begins at home and at a tender age.  The education system also has an important role to play in this respect.  This must be a central feature of the core curriculum described earlier in the Education Work Plan.  But education is not enough.  Israeli society must protect itself by additional means:

·       Police

-       The Israeli police force must undergo fundamental reform.  Significant upgrading of the size, quality and allocation of the workforce is required, as well as of the means placed at its disposal.

-       Serious police work is for professionals and the force cannot be dependent on volunteers, however devoted they are.  There are no shortcuts in this area.

-       All areas of law enforcement and public order must come under the responsibility of the police – from maintaining public order and combating crime to enforcing traffic regulations, labor laws, and laws designed to protect the environment.

-       Police organization and deployment that significantly increases the likelihood of apprehension, if a crime is committed, plays an important role in crime prevention.  Such organization and deployment must become a central feature of the police reform.

-       Consideration should be given to the establishment of local/urban police forces that would have a better understanding of the problems and characteristics of the local population.

·       Courts

-       The courts in Israel are not coping with their workload.  Long drawn-out trials confirm the maxim that “justice delayed is justice denied”.  The judicial process must be streamlined to speed up the process culminating in a verdict and, if necessary, in sentencing.

-       An increased probability of apprehension must be accompanied by deterrent punishments. In the case of murder or other crimes that end with the verdict of life in prison, the person found guilty should actually remain in prison to the end of his life.

·       Prisons

-       Prison conditions in Israel are disgraceful, with severe overcrowding and poor sanitation. The prisons must provide at least the minimum standards for human habitation laid down by law.

-       The rehabilitation procedure for prisoners is critical for improving the chances of those released to become reintegrated in society.  The resources and efforts invested in prisoner rehabilitation require significant upgrading.

B.     Zero-tolerance on Corruption

Public and private corruption in Israel has reached epidemic proportions and affects all branches of government.  The deterioration of morals in publicly elected officials is reflected in their shameless conflicts of interest at the personal and family level, and in misleading, manipulative, inaccurate and simply false reporting of the facts by officials that are becoming ever more brazen in their lack of accountability to the public.

The lack of budgetary transparency means that citizens have no idea as to how their tax money is actually being spent – with hazy budget items providing back-channels for huge transfers of money to cronies and special interest groups.  There is an unconscionable discrepancy between public declarations of national priorities and defacto budget allocations that reflect the actual, hidden, national priorities.

The zero-tolerance approach to fighting corruption among publicly elected officials should include:

·       Abolishing the right of publicly elected officials to remain silent during police investigations.  Such officials should be given the option to give evidence if so required, or to resign if they wish to remain silent – but they cannot be permitted to retain their positions if they choose to remain silent.

·       Only a judicial panel – rather than fellow MK’s, as is the case today – should have the authority to remove the immunity of MK’s suspected of criminal behavior.

·       Publicly elected officials cannot be permitted to participate in discussions or votes if they or members of their family stand to benefit in any way from the results of the discussion or the vote.

·       Budget transparency must be substantially increased in order to prevent back-channel appropriations of public money.

C.     Zero-tolerance on Economic Crimes

The level of disregard for the law, together with deeply-rooted norms of non-enforcement in Israel, have led to growing mistrust in public institutions and to intolerable economic distortions – the latter includes steadily increasing inequality in the distribution of incomes and creation of an unnecessarily heavy public debt.  It should be emphasized that “white collar” crime is not confined to the public sector alone. These offenses should be taken seriously, whether committed in the public or the private sectors.  The zero-tolerance approach on economic crimes requires:

·       All-out war on “under-the-table” labor activity.  Widespread non-reporting of incomes is reflected in extensive tax evasion that increases the tax burden on law-abiding citizens.  Furthermore, non-reporting enables receipt of welfare payments – which increases the tax burden still further – and creates an illusion of poverty.

·       Serious law enforcement – by police rather than by inspectors from municipalities and government ministries – of labor laws and regulations including payment of a minimum wage and social security benefits.  The time has come for the public to internalize the fact that these are not merely behavioral guidelines from above but the laws of the land.

·       Penalties for non-criminal business offences should be include stiff monetary fines that will act as a deterrent.  The general rule for criminal offences should be jail.

·       Declaring war on a business culture that sanctions failure to honor one’s commitments.  This culture ranges from individuals and businesses that issue checks that bounce right up to the government itself, which fails to honor its contractual commitments to pay suppliers on time – even failing to pay altogether on occasion.

6.     Leadership

A different kind of leadership is required to implement the Work Plan: a leadership with vision and a sense of direction, with the qualifications to formulate national priorities and the wherewithal to implement them, with the ability to lead by personal example, with integrity and personal standards above reproach.  Israel deserves no less.

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