A Groggy Prime Minister

Like a boxer who has received a hard right uppercut to the chin and groggily reaches for something to hang on to, Ehud Olmert, after the Lebanon fiasco, is reaching for someone to hang on to, and whom does he find? Avigdor Lieberman.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on October 17, 2006.)

Like a boxer who has received a hard right uppercut to the chin and groggily reaches for something to hang on to, our prime minister, Ehud Olmert, after the Lebanon fiasco, is reaching for someone to hang on to, and whom does he find? The man who claims to know the answers to all questions – Avigdor Lieberman. In desperation he reaches out to him, embraces him and, without further ado, agrees to sponsor a radical change in Israel’s form of government, a presidential system. Just think of it – if it was President Olmert, rather than Prime Minister Olmert, he now would not have to worry about a judicial commission of inquiry, or a vote of no-confidence in the Knesset or the public opinion polls that show that a large majority of the public has no confidence in his leadership. He would be assured of four years as president, and all his critics could go to hell. Why did he not think of this himself?

But there is also an accompanying chorus. A collection of academic theoreticians, ex-generals, and businessmen are now touting the presidential system as the cure-all for Israel’s ills. It will presumably give us a stable government, and is there anything more important than stability? Does it really matter if the government is good or bad, as long as it is stable? Vote them into office for a period of four years. After all, how much damage can they do to the country during four years, and how many wars can they lose? The next “stable” government can always repair that damage. Is it any wonder that prominent among the advocates of the presidential system are the very people who foisted on us the ill-fated direct election of the prime minister law, which had to be revoked after four years, as it was leading the country toward anarchy. This Israeli invention had given the country the two shortest-lived governments in Israel’s history – the Netanyahu and Barak governments. It was only on return to the parliamentary system that we returned to a government with a reasonable tenure.

There is an old adage that “figures don’t lie but liars use figures.” It comes to mind when viewing the graphs now produced by the advocates of the presidential system of government, attempting to show the frequent changes in government and ministerial posts under the present system. For reason best known to themselves, they begin their statistics with the year 1996, thus including in their statistics the years 1996 to 2001, the years in which the direct election of the prime minister law, now revoked, was implemented, and Israel had the most unstable governments in its history. That’s one way of fooling the public.

Lieberman is not known for his adherence to democratic principles. He has now come up with a suggestion that bears no resemblance to any democratic government, parliamentary or presidential. He proposes that the senior ministerial positions in the presidential government are to be staffed by non-political professionals. Presumably, the Defense Ministry by a general, the treasury by a professor of economics, the Internal Security Ministry by a former police chief, etc. They, having no political ideas of their own (where do you find such animals in Israel, or maybe they can be imported?), are to concentrate simply on doing their ministerial job “professionally.” He has yet to learn the lesson that in a democracy ministers can get their plans accepted only if they can garner political support for them, and without political connections, they are simply impotent. Or maybe he imagines that under his type of presidential system, members of the Knesset will simply have to follow orders.

But while we are on the subject of improving our system of government, there is one grievous fault that cries out for immediate repair. At the present time Israel’s form of government can be changed by a one-vote majority in the Knesset. This is unheard of in any democracy nowadays. It permits radical changes in our system of government every few years. This is great for conducting experiments in political science, but woe to the country that has to go through such experiments. Any student of political science would admit that a statute is needed on our law books that requires that changes in the system of government must be adopted by at least a two-thirds majority of the members of the Knesset. Olmert and Lieberman and the rest who are now advocating a presidential system for Israel would, of course, not support such a law, since that would be the end of the presidential system initiative, the government composed of professionals and Lieberman as the chief strategist of the State of Israel.

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