Politics in Turmoil

The promoters of the presidential system are out to prove that Israel’s parliamentary democracy does not work and that it is time for another experiment.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on December 21, 2005.)


“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” was the title of a talk by the meteorologist Edward Lorenz at a meeting of the American Association for the Sciences in 1972. Lorenz, the originator of chaos theory, demonstrated that in certain non-linear systems, a small initial perturbation can in due time lead to very large scale unpredictable results.

Political systems are notoriously non-linear, and the Israeli political system is no exception. The “flap of the butterfly’s wings” that brought about the present state of chaos in Israeli politics was Sharon’s hint a few years ago that he was considering a unilateral withdrawal from some areas of Israeli settlement. The hints were in due time followed by the forcible evacuation of the settlement bloc of Gush Katif, the smaller settlement bloc south of Ashkelon, and settlements in northern Samaria. The move aroused opposition in his own Likud party, but led to enthusiastic support for his move by many on the left, eventually leading to Sharon’s departure from the party he headed, and the creation of a new party, Kadima, which now includes some of his former Likud colleagues, Shimon Peres and other former members of the Labor party, and others, who – encouraged by the public opinion polls – are expecting to gain a Knesset seat on Sharon’s coat-tails.

Kadima, or “Forward,” is the incongruous name of Sharon’s new party, but nobody seems to know where he is trying to take us. Usually a party’s name is intended to give some indication of its principles, or the background of its membership. One can only assume that Sharon is insinuating that everybody else wants to lead Israel backward. But even if “Forward” is assumed to be a positive movement, the question remains just what azimuth of the 180 degree forward sector Sharon intends to follow.

Kadima is essentially a one-man party. It has no institutions and no elections. Its list of candidates for the Knesset will be handpicked by Sharon. Except for its announced intention to abandon parliamentary democracy and establish a presidential system in Israel, it has no platform. Its billboard advertisements show Sharon and the motto “a strong leader for peace.” His supporters do not seem to care. They put their trust in him. They are counting on him to do the right thing and their confidence in him at this moment seems to have no bounds.

As for the call for instituting a presidential system, one can only assume that Sharon prefers to be free of the checks and balances of a parliamentary democracy while pursuing the “forward” movement he champions. His avid supporters also seem to prefer to see their leader freed of any restraints. Those who naively believe that Israel under this new system will resemble the US system of government should be disabused of that illusion. The US government is a federal structure, where much of governmental authority is decentralized to the state and municipal level, a structure completely unsuitable for little Israel. What the supporters of a presidential system for Israel may have in mind is probably more like what exists in Russia under Putin at this time. Hardly an example to follow.

Their talk about the instability and ineffectiveness of Israeli parliamentary democracy ignores the great achievements of the State of Israel through years of conflict, crises, and mass immigration while governing under this system, and is reminiscent of the yearning for a strong leader heard in years past in other places based on the cry that parliamentary democracy had supposedly failed.

The foremost proponent of adopting the presidential system in Israel in Professor Uriel Reichman, who has climbed on the Kadima bandwagon and should be remembered as the initiator of the ill-famed “direct election of the Prime Minister law”, which turned out to be an abject failure and had to be revoked after giving us two governments – Netanyahu’s and Barak’s – which had the shortest tenures in Israel’s history.

By including these misbegotten mini-governments in their calculation of the average tenure of Israel’s governments, the promoters of the presidential system are out to prove that Israel’s parliamentary democracy does not work and that it is time for another experiment. In control theory this is called positive feedback – instead of correcting an error the error is compounded. It leads to divergent behavior of the system, and may have catastrophic consequences if not stopped in time. Who would want to go “forward” in this direction?

Translate »