Israel to weigh U.S.-style rule

Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM -- Does Israel need a strongman?

Since the summertime war in Lebanon, Israel’s leadership has been in turmoil. The government, widely blamed for mismanaging the conflict, is fracturing. Corruption and sex scandals are shaking people’s faith in politicians. Israelis tell pollsters the system is broken.

On Sunday, the postwar angst pushed an idea with growing appeal onto the Cabinet’s agenda: Israel should scrap its parliamentary system, which tends to produce shaky coalition governments and throw them out with dizzying speed, in favor of American-style presidential rule.

The Cabinet voted 12 to 11 to endorse the proposed overhaul and send it to the Knesset, the parliament.


But passage is far from certain, in part because the sponsor is a right-wing politician with extreme views, growing popularity and leadership ambition. If Avigdor Lieberman were to benefit from his own proposal, his critics say, he might turn Israel’s democratic free-for-all into an autocracy.

An immediate consequence of the Cabinet’s decision was to bring Lieberman and his Russian-immigrant-based party, Yisrael Beiteinu, or Israel Our Home, a step closer to joining the government. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, elected in March, has been trying since the war ended Aug. 14 to shore up his beleaguered coalition.

One of Lieberman’s conditions for joining was Cabinet backing for his bill, regardless of its fate in parliament.

Olmert lobbied hard for approval of the measure despite his misgivings. His centrist Kadima Party faces a possible revolt by its leftist coalition partner, the Labor Party; he needs a new ally to preserve his majority in parliament and avoid new elections that polls show he would lose.

Instability has always been a hallmark of politics in Israel, which theoretically elects its leaders for four years but has changed governments 31 times in its 58-year history.

Voters elect a parliament, and the parliament’s 120 members elect the prime minister and Cabinet from among their ranks. Governing coalitions with a parliamentary majority are formed after painstaking negotiations among many parties but fall apart with chronic ease, allowing parliament to force new elections.

Israel’s leaders, said Tel Aviv University’s Gideon Doron, “have to spend 80% of their time investing in their survival.” Those who survive the longest, he said, are those who risk doing the least.

As a result, Doron and other political scientists said, the system discourages decisive government action on a wide range of needs, such as modernizing the school system or the public transport network. In the postwar fallout, Israelis have blamed their leaders for failing over the years to upgrade the military and confront the armed might of the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon.

“A prime minister doesn’t need an agenda,” Olmert told Israeli reporters last month. “He just needs to run the country.”

For Lieberman, that is exactly the problem.

Under his bill, the prime minister would be elected directly by voters and name a Cabinet from outside the ranks of parliament, with no need for parliamentary approval. Parliament would also be stripped of its power to call early elections. It could dismiss a prime minister only by a vote of 80 or more members; under that scenario, the deputy prime minister would take over.

The measure would give Israel’s leader powers similar to those of the U.S. president, except that he would still be called prime minister. Israel’s current presidency, a ceremonial post, would be abolished.

Lieberman’s proposal has been around for years but gained currency after his party finished a strong fourth in the March election, taking 11 seats in parliament. A new book by Doron, the Tel Aviv political scientist, advocating a “presidential regime” made a splash in academic circles this summer, boosting the movement. Recent polls show that most Israelis want stronger leadership.

Some critics of the proposal call it a recipe for gridlock between a prime minister and an opposition-controlled parliament. Others reject it as a formula for dictatorship by an unfettered ruler in a country without a constitution or complex system of American-style checks and balances.

“In a country with a weak democratic culture like Israel, the president could govern by coercion and violence, without consent,” said Tom Segev, a leading historian. “A presidential system is one of solitary decisions, not one of compromises, and is therefore harmful to minorities and exacerbates disputes and schisms. Everything will be personal.”

Such misgivings are reinforced by Lieberman’s extreme nationalist views. A 48-year-old immigrant from Moldova, he proposes redrawing Israel’s border in a way that would strip 150,000 Arabs of their Israeli citizenship and transferring the towns they live in to the Palestinian Authority. In return, he would annex the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Israeli liberals who might otherwise welcome more power for a prime minister say they are alarmed by such a proposal from Lieberman.

Speaking to reporters last week, Lieberman offered a rebuttal: “It is not scary. On the contrary, it is the lack of political stability that is scary.... Political instability in Israel is harming the very ability to make decisions and run things in a reasonable manner.”

But his bill is unlikely to pass in its current form. To get the Cabinet’s grudging approval Olmert promised that his own party’s milder proposal -- giving the prime minister less autonomy than Lieberman wants -- would be submitted to parliament at the same time. Leaders of several parties said a compromise would be likely.