Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu departs the podium after addressing supporters at his Likud party's electoral campaign headquarters early on Wednesday. Photo: AFP / Menahem Kahana

When Israel declared independence in 1948, aside from some Ottoman-era holdovers concerning land and property, the only law in the land was the British Mandate authority and the various rules and regulations that it had promulgated since the British took over the territory under a League of Nations mandate after World War I. There was no judicial system, no political/electoral structure, and no constitution.

The new country was immediately attacked by all of its neighbors and there was little time for anything other than survival. After the invaders were defeated and driven out of most of the Mandate territory, the Israeli legislature (the Knesset) passed certain “basic laws” covering various topics, including the judicial system over a period of years but no constitution was ever adopted.

As a result, the political system, including all three branches of government, is a mishmash of pre- and post-independence laws and structures. The Israeli government is neither presidential as in the United States, nor truly parliamentary as in the United Kingdom, nor a meaningful combination of the two as in France. The members of the Knesset represent no one in particular, since they are not elected by district. As a result they are dependent on the leadership of their party alone, and that leadership is often chosen by a relatively small number of party members. Party primaries are not unknown but are rare, and are held at the pleasure of the leadership.

Judicial review exists in Israel and Knesset laws and bureaucratic regulations are frequently questioned and sometimes overturned by the courts, often on grounds having to do more with “general principles of justice” than any written document, creating even greater uncertainty.

Majority government is almost impossible because of the electoral system, and the fact that several parties are elected by well-defined population groups that vote en masse for their parties. These are the Arab parties and the Haredi (ultra-orthodox Jewish) parties. Together they make up about a quarter of the total Knesset membership of 120. Government is always by coalition. The Arab parties are never part of any governing coalition and the Haredi parties will only join in coalition with other parties that agree to their minimum demands, having to do with military service by their members and religious observance imposed on society as a whole.

There are also no term limits in Israel, as a result of which the current prime minister, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, has been in office longer than any other prime minister in the country’s history. He is also under indictment on various accounts, including bribery. He will not step down, however, and after two elections in a row, six months apart in 2019, he has been unable to form a government in the face of an opposition coalition headed by a new party, Blue and White. However, given the results of the elections, the opposition can also not form a government and the country is headed for a third election in a row, on March 2, 2020.

This surrealistic state of affairs, due to a dysfunctional political system hardly worthy of the name “system,” is doing considerable damage to Israel’s internal and external image, at a time when external threats are proliferating, headed by Iran and its terrorist proxies Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, operating out of Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. Luckily, so far, economic damage has been limited, but with the budgetary process stalled and significant sums of money spent on the serial elections, that is likely to change, particularly if the third election also results in a deadlocked process.

Israel desperately needs reform of its political system, at a minimum to have the members of the Knesset elected according to districts and term limits for the prime ministership. Ideal would be to convene a constitutional convention to adopt a constitution for the country, as the US did when the governments created by the Articles of Confederation proved incapable of functioning properly. Whether any reform, much less the adoption of a constitution, however, is possible remains to be seen, especially since the members of the political class, as individuals, benefit greatly from the present situation.

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