Thursday 1 December 2005

Representation in Democracy (Crisis in Israel’s Democracy)


Democracies throughout the world are facing crises in the governance of their polities. They are experimenting with changes and modifications especially to their electoral systems owing to the very discontent and disconnect that we are familiar with amongst our own electorate in Israel. The malaise is not confined to Israel. Recent examples are the new electoral systems to the Scottish and European parliament in the UK (which failed to reconnect) and the changes in recent years that New Zealand introduced (which largely succeeded.) Broadly speaking both major groups of systems i.e. PR and Constituency (regional) are under pressure as a result of many similar factors that I have highlighted in my essay on “TR” Total Representation. This disconnect between the people and their representatives is widening. I believe no amount of education of citizens or preaching to politicians can drastically change that. Only institutionalised systemic reforms can produce changes in attitudes of the citizenry through engaging them where they could feel that their votes and their individual participation in the election process count. One way of doing that is by preserving the salient elements of the two major systems, tested and tried over centuries, the PR system (of Israel) and the Constituency system (of the UK). The fusion of these two systems is the essence of TR Total Representation whose added advantage is the simplicity of its implementation. On the face of it, under PR theoretically all citizens’ votes in Israel today count. However the manipulations of centralised and remote political parties rob the ordinary voters, especially in the peripheries of political participation and influence on their parties leaving them with a feeling of discontent and disconnect, hence the necessity to correct that.

Instead of concentrating on core systemic changes some political scientists are exhorting political leaders to correct their behaviour and adhere to higher standards of morality and professional ethics. Professor Dror’s “Letter to A Jewish Zionist Leader” is a notable example. It is wise and laudable. But so too were the exhortations of Plato on the qualities of the Ruler. Unfortunately we are living in a world of Machiavelli where fear not love is the engine and the tool of modern leaders. Morality and fair behaviour are cultural attributes that grow gradually gaining acceptance by societies as they develop towards uniformity and cohesion. Being a fervent Zionist Jew I find myself in absolute agreement with the sentiments of Professor Dror’s letter. But I know having left the protective warmth of Academia and stepped out into the real world of power, greed and living for the day, I found myself amongst people poor in spirit and weak in flesh. That is why I concluded that the only way to get better leaders is by instituting systems that compel them to be good for their own selfish interests.

You cannot dictate moral or ethical behaviour to people or politicians but you can legislate for it and then only if you back it by sanctions. In a democracy the voter is the only brake on corrupt rulers. This is the essence of Karl Popper’s Open Society. When published in 1945 it was hailed as the last word in defending the concept of freedom of the individual and the definition of liberal democracy because its main theme was the elasticity to change, hence “Open” i.e. open-ended. The shackles of religious rigidity and philosophical imperatives are replaced by an alternative offered by Popper of an automatic engine of continuing change to preserve the ideals and the cohesion of society. However it did not take long before John Rawls brought up his “Theory of Justice” in 1972 followed by the publication of Ronald Dworkin’s “Taking Rights Seriously” to find ourselves back where Popper started. Far from the death cry of ideology following Popper, we find ourselves grappling with a new ideology dressed in divine terms, in fact a New Religion called “Human Rights” born of the wholesale application of the UN Charter. Today it is the pragmatic Anglo Saxons (UK and USA) that are taking up the gauntlet thrown at it by writers and judges prone to theorizing in Continental Europe, in contrast to their pragmatic lawmakers at home. The scourge of fanatic religious movements using terror rather than reason and debate to propagate and coerce others to follow their lead created problems inside the legal frameworks of many countries. The human rights of individual fanatics are precariously balanced against the existential rights of society.

In Israel, while putting the instability of Government at the centre of the argument we tend to overlook what is happening to the third arm of the State, the Judiciary. The emancipation of our “Jewish Tribes” from the Diaspora brought about a breakdown in our traditional Jewish values and sharpened the divide between the religious and the secular. With the growing weakness of our Legislator and the incessant preoccupation of the Executive with pressing security issues of life and death, it was left to the Judiciary to determine and implement normative constitutional issues forgetting that they are essentially there to judge the decisions of the first arm, the sovereign arm of the state, the direct representative of the people, on these matters. Unfortunately instead of drawing on centuries of Jewish traditions where legal Justice and social justice converged into Tesedek and Tsedaka they fell into the modern mantras of Human Rights as defined and dictated not by our present situation and our past traditions as any parliament should always do, but by philosophical reasoning of a variety of judges in Continental Europe. Common Law Practice inherited from the Mandate is not alien to our Talmudic procedures. Recently a lively debate in the Anglo Saxon world is developing to search for an accommodation with the overpowering Convention on Human Rights propagated from Continental Europe. Where do we stand vis-à-vis all that? Instead of aligning ourselves with our legal base rooted in our inherited English Common Law, we find our Judges giving new interpretations of our Basic Law of the early 90’s on Human Rights that is being transformed in the hands of our Supreme Court into “The Constitution” where the amorphous concept of “Dignity” have taken precedence on the wider interpretations of truth, equity and justice rooted in Talmudic and Common Law precedents. And when the lives of our innocent people are pitched against the rights of individuals who seem hell-bent to destroy them, Human Rights is fast becoming a pernicious New Religion not to be questioned leaving our people numbed and confused. The conclusion therefore is that reform is needed here as well as in the other two arms of the State. And the only arm that has the power to reform them is the Knesset as the depository of the sovereignty of the nation. But to start doing that it has first to reform itself.

Our problems in Israel echo what is happening in the old established democracies. They are more acute in Israel because of our special precarious coexistence with our neighbours and our own Arab minority living amongst us. Our very existence is in danger owing to outside pressures and inside divisions. We cannot afford the luxury that other nations enjoy of letting events create and shape the solutions. We have to be more proactive. Our task in the President’s Commission is to devise and advice. If we don’t urgently offer practical schemes to the Knesset to reform itself our present generation of academics and intellectuals will be accused by a future Julien Benda of yet another “Great Betrayal”. Many of our citizens in the peripheries, in Kiryat Shmoneh and Sderot feel helpless to what they perceive to be an unholy alliance of academia, political establishment and social elite.

Our democracy is not new even if its practice is only 57 years old. Most of our people in Israel came either from Western countries where they experienced open direct Democracy or from the East where they practiced communal democracy centered on Synagogues and institutions which they established independent of the polities of their host countries. It is a myth that publicists and some academics that lack knowledge of these communities have invented and fostered, that Oriental Jews have no understanding of Democracy. The fact is that from 1948 onwards and until recently immigrants from the East have despaired at being unable to pierce the oligarchic walls of European/Ashkenazi led establishments. To climb those walls they needed to be Europeanized/Ashkenized, (to become mitbolilim!!! assimilated) When they couldn’t or did not want to, they sought prominence in other fields of finance, services and industry. They succeeded; and the more successful of them cast aside ambitions to assume political responsibility and left the field open to religious leaders to assume political leadership hence the increasing power of religious parties. It was only natural then for the younger tier leaders in the development regions to cultivate political bases within their small communities. And while the old establishments of the fifties reinforced by an increasing supply of ex-generals are aging, the second tier mainly oriental (and soon Russian) are coming of age to find their proper places in the national arena. We should delight and celebrate this trend as it will consolidate cement and give cohesion to a revitalized Jewish Israel. To speed it up and find a place and rationale for the Arab minority to integrate into it we need a system that propels changes and sustains them at grass root level. In fact the last thing we need in our fluid situation is a rigid Constitution at this stage. A system that can greatly help the process of change is TR/YESH Total Representation.

In seeking a medicine for the general malaise that is penetrating and frustrating our people, I am looking at our political realities from different angles. First of all, our people and our country are in dire straits. They are disunited and fragmented into many factions: ideological, theological and downright egoistic self interest, producing a multiplicity of approaches to defending our people from a three prong attack by Arabs outside, radicalised Muslims inside and a growing anti Israel (call it anti Semitic if you wish) public in the West, mainly in Europe. As a result, while our adversaries are all singing one clear all embracing tune based on the Occupation and on a falsely presented treatment of Arabs inside and outside our country, we find ourselves responding with conflicting and contradictory solutions stretching from a unified secular non-Jewish Israel down to redrawing our borders by transferring Israeli Arab villages to the other side. To put it graphically while our enemies are singing one single MIZMOR (Psalm) we tend to counter with a whole book of TEHILLIM.(Psalms) Why is this? The answer is not that we have an unstable government but because we have a fragmented Knesset where all factions claim divine right, not least amongst them are the secular.

Recent Opinion Polls have pointed to a desire by our people to have a strong leader. In the simplistic nature of opinion polling the public cannot be specific about which leaders for which policies. The reason for this confusion is that in recent years the public could not focus on a person or policy because Sharon and Shimon Peres and behind them until recently Likud and Labour have merged in the public perception as one group that is behind the prevailing malaise. The Government and the Knesset have merged and are certainly perceived by the public to be one entity. So even unity coalitions were not functioning properly because real alternatives in the shape of realistic oppositions to hold the government relentlessly accountable were missing. Shinui and Shass from their positions are so factional and one sided in the public perception that their leaders could not be seen as the alternative strong leaders of political oppositions headed by Prime Ministers in waiting. The public is confused looking in vain for an elusive alternative Strong Leader. This is the reason for the popularity of emerging Sharon and Kadima. The TR Total Representation System is designed to produce an effective stable opposition to a stable government. In this way with a leader in the Knesset marshalling a strong opposition, the public can focus through the debates in the Knesset rather than the sensational media on alternative policies, an alternative Government and an alternative Leader. Democracy is not about the power of the majority only but also about the freedom of legitimate minority opposition. This is the essence of John Stuart Mill’s warning about the dictatorship of the majority.

Therefore those who are advocating a Presidential System are looking to cure the secondary infection of the illness. It is the instability inherent in the structure of the Knesset that is causing the instability of the Government and depriving the nation of a real opposition underpinning a real democracy. We have therefore to give priority to electoral reform and then see whether we still need to follow it with a Presidential Government. Moreover changing to a Presidential System entails repeal and replacement of the Two Basic Laws of the President and the Government. It is a tall order which amounts to dismantling the State of Israel and rebuilding it anew. Why do we need this sledgehammer when we might achieve our objective of stable government by a tuning screwdriver provided by the TR Total Representation System of electoral reform? But here I must hasten to add that a strong Knesset born of TR will be needed even more so under a Presidential Executive should this be favoured and established. TR is not an alternative to a Presidential Executive. Both in academic theoretical terms and against the political realities in Israel TR is a pre-requisite for the initiation and subsequent establishment of a Presidential System of Government. The TR horse will be an essential pre-requisite to pull the cart of a possible Presidential System. Let us put this horse in front of this cart.

In conclusion I feel we have to address the crisis in our democracy with specific straightforward solutions. I believe such solutions have to be systemic structural solutions in the heart of which is TR. Any general exhortation to higher standards in public life will fall on the deaf ears of political vested interests and only increase the confusion and disillusion of ordinary citizens. Apart from the problems of security of well defined state borders and the vulnerability to radicalised Muslims inside Israel, what in fact engages our ordinary citizens are the normal necessities of their daily lives. It is unrealistic to expect these citizens to find the solutions we are looking for. If they want a strong leader it is because they need one to allow them to get on with their lives. This is the same in the established West and in the developing East. If we encourage our citizens towards mass protests or civil disobedience of any magnitude as some writers suggest (in order to put pressure on the national leadership) we will not be able to contain it and inevitably will end up in some form of civil strife and even violence. The solutions have to come from above and we academics and intellectuals in the President’s Commission could take an active part in helping the political leadership by offering them clearly defined practical and do-able solutions.

Aharon Nathan, 1st December 2005
(Aharon Nathan is a member of the President‘s Commission examining the systems of government in Israel)