Changing Partners

At the latest party of Israeli politics, the prime minister is breaking one of the basic rules: you dance with the one who brought you.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on October 26, 2004.)

At the latest party of Israeli politics, the prime minister is breaking one of the basic rules: you dance with the one who brought you. It is the Likud, his own party, and the parties on the right that brought Sharon to the dance in the Prime Minister’s Office, and now he has decided to change partners.

He wants to dance with the Labor Party, Yahad and some of the Arab MKs and the result is a bizarre and unprecedented situation. Sharon’s new partners are backing his plan for uprooting the Israeli settlements in Gush Katif in the expectation that it will set into motion a more general withdrawal encompassing all or most of Judea and Samaria. The prime minister, on the other hand, if his former adjutant Dov Weisglass is to be believed, insists on making this move in the expectation that after the withdrawal from Gush Katif he will be left alone by friend and foe alike, and no further withdrawals will be required.

Right now, all politicians’ positions are measured by one single parameter – Sharon’s disengagement plan. That is the be all and end all of Israeli politics for the moment. But a general rearrangement can be expected as time goes by. Sharon may have to change partners again, if there is anyone left who wants to dance with him after the withdrawal.

This puzzling situation has brought forth a barrage of arguments that go right to the root of the functioning of Israel’s democracy. Would approval by a referendum lend legitimacy to the prime minister’s plan, or would it be a blow to the very foundations of Israel’s democracy? Do public opinion polls conducted among 500 citizens by telephone provide all the legitimacy that is needed? Is the Likud Central Committee an essential element in the structure of Israel’s democracy or is it a dangerous nuisance that puts the fate of the nation in to the hands of a few thousand members, who are not representative of the nation’s voters?

What is the difference between an executive democracy like the United States and a parliamentary democracy like Israel? Who is sorry now that we abolished the law for the direct election of the prime minister and returned to a pure parliamentary system? Was it a mistake?

Israel is not only a parliamentary democracy, but its parliament is elected by proportional representation, which means the voter casts his vote for a party and not for individual candidates. Therefore, the members of the Knesset, including the prime minister, are the delegates of the party they represent and are responsible to party forums, i.e. the central committee.

Although they are the party’s representatives, they do not have to be the party’s slaves. They have the option to leave the party’s faction in the Knesset if, once elected, they find they are no longer in tune with party thinking. They can, along with like-minded Knesset members, form a new faction and contest the next election. The party’s central committee lays no claim to representing all the citizens of Israel; it represents the members of the party that sent its delegates to the Knesset.

Inevitably, a party’s central committee becomes important in the national scheme of things if it happens to be the central committee of the ruling party, and, by that token, it has influence on national policy. There is nothing undemocratic about that. That is how a parliamentary democracy with proportional representation is supposed to work. We would probably not be better off if the parties’ central committees were denied any role in shaping the parties’ policies. Nor is it at all clear that bypassing the central committee and nominating a party’s list for the Knesset in national primaries will constitute an improvement.

In any case, there is some question whether it is consistent with parliamentary democracy to have the Knesset dictate to the parties how they should nominate their candidates for the Knesset, as has recently been proposed. After all, it is up to the voter to judge the parties at election time, including their list of Knesset candidates, regardless of how the candidates were nominated.

It has been many years since Israel has had a prime minister who decided to enter a confrontation with his own party. It did happen once when David Ben-Gurion got into a fight with his own Labor Party over the Lavon affair. That episode did not end so well.

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