Nostalgia isn’t What it Used to Be

Peretz and his adherents are bound to discover, to their chagrin, that Netanyahu’s economic reforms are the appropriate measures for Israel’s economy at this time.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on November 22, 2005.)

A week before he decided to bolt the Likud and form a new party, the prime minister told Amir Peretz, the newly elected leader of the Labor Party, that pulling the Labor ministers out of the government and advancing the date of parliamentary elections was an irresponsible act. But it was only common sense that made Peretz realize that if the Labor Party was to present itself as an alternative to the Likud at the next election, it could not do so as the junior party in an outgoing Likud-led coalition government. In any case, the elections were scheduled to take place no later than November 2006.

This is the first time – after many years in which elections were held on an almost annual basis – that a government will have functioned for over three years, and would have gone the full term if Sharon had not scuttled his original coalition so as to implement his disengagement plan. This increased longevity was the direct result of the abolition of the bizarre law for the direct election of the prime minister, which had thrown Israeli politics into turmoil. The Israeli political system has been moved back in the direction of two large parties, which is a necessary condition for a measure of much needed stability.

The new Knesset law that increases the minimum threshold for Knesset representation to 2 percent of the popular vote, and the abolition of the surplus vote transfer laws presently being legislated will make a further contribution in that direction.

Pulling the Labor Party out of the coalition is consistent with a system built on two major parties that contend for power, a prescription for a functioning democracy. Formation by Sharon of a new party, which according to the polls will create a triad of medium-sized parties in the Knesset – or maybe even a quartet of such parties – might well move Israel away from a stable parliamentary system. Just how responsible this move was will no doubt be debated in future years.

The weak link in the Israeli electoral system is the method used to select the ordered list of candidates that the parties present to the voter at election time, the primaries. This is particularly crucial for the two large parties, whose representatives constitute a good share of the Knesset and who are likely to fill key positions in the government and Knesset committees after the elections. It may not be too late to make some last-minute changes in the system for the election of the candidates of the large parties, whether elected by the parties’ membership or the members of its Central Committee.

The tradition of reserving slots on the election slate for women, representatives of geographic regions and minority candidates, while certainly well intentioned, creates opportunities for pressure groups to advance their favorite candidates onto the Knesset list with a relatively small number of votes. The unfortunate results can be clearly seen in the present Knesset. If the Likud does not significantly reduce the large number of reserved slots on its ticket, its next Knesset representation may look even worse than the present one.

As for Sharon’s new party, there will be no problem. Democratic notions will be thrown to the wind, and Sharon will himself determine the composition of the list. The result is likely to be disappointing to some who will join the party in the expectation of becoming ministers in the next government.

Amir Peretz is a likable addition to the Israeli political scene. His style of honest straight talk had become a rarity in political circles in recent years, and his open shirt dress-code will be welcomed by many who were dismayed by the jacket and tie fashion, so unsuitable to Israel’s climate and pioneering tradition which has been instituted by Israeli politicians in recent years. Many Israeli probably feel a twinge of nostalgia when seeing the newly elected leader of the Labor Party. Israel is still a pioneering country, but it has become a high technology pioneer.

The latest edition of The Economist describes Israel’s economy under the title of “The Secret of Israel’s success.” Israel has become a high technology country par excellence – 55 percent of Israel’s exports are high technology, compared with the OECD average of 26 percent. Engineers in Israel constitute by far the highest percentage of the work force, as compared with other industrial nations. No wonder that highly qualified employees’ earnings in Israel are similar to those prevalent in the richer countries of the world, and that consequently the gap between rich and poor is growing, a phenomenon characteristic of all advanced economies nowadays.

The remedy to this situation is not more handouts but more education, so that all sectors of the population – Jews and Arabs – will have the opportunity to participate in Israel’s high technology economy. Peretz and his adherents are bound to discover, to their chagrin, that Netanyahu’s economic reforms are the appropriate measures for Israel’s economy at this time. A return to the Socialism of previous decades will turn Israel back to the status of a third world country. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

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