Two Reflections On Israel's Elections

By Yehuda Poch

This Is Democracy

It was with great confusion that I read over the past few months how Prime Minister Peres constantly attacked opposition elements, whether within or outside the Knesset, for undemocratic means used against the interests of the government, and the perceived interests of the State.

Indeed, such attacks go back to the Rabin administration, when groups such as the Women in Green, Zu Artzeinu and others were called anti-democratic for their very democratic means of protest. Since then, however, other, less politicized groups such as Chabad Lubavitch, Bar Ilan University, several Haredi sects, and even the Likud party itself, have been pasted with this label.

What confused me about these verbal attacks was two things. First, none of the methods used by these movements or organizations were in any way undemocratic. In the spirit, and through the precedents, of the greatest democratic tradition in the world, these civil disobedience activities, and the participation of these groups in electoral campaigning, were precisely what is meant by democracy. The voice of the people was being heard, and it was an angry voice. That it was so loudly and obviously anti-government was perhaps reason enough for the government to fight back using the anti-democratic label, even though any student of democratic tradition knows this label to be a false attempt at regaining some political momentum.

But even more confusing was that at the same time as the government so willingly mis-applied this label to its opposition, the government itself broke the rules of democracy by arresting and imprisoning tens of opponents with no charge for no apparent reason. The specious claim was made that these opponents engaged in some speech, or writing, that wasanti-government, or inciteful. But since when is speech a tool of anarchy, or an anti-democratic weapon? And since when is arrest and imprisonment without trial a democratic maneuver?

My confusion ended dramatically this past week, as, in the best democratic tradition, the people spoke. A majority of Israelis responded to the past few years of confusion regarding the meaning of Israeli democracy, and told the government, "This is democracy. This is the will of the people."

The result is that a government has been elected in whose ideology democracy is more comfortable, and the democratic tradition is more secure. It is my fervent hope that at no time in the future shall democracy again comd under such virulent abusive attack as it has these past few years.

A Victory for Israel

It has been quite a long time since I was able to write an upbeat article about the situation in Israel. Those of you who read my articles regularly will by now be well acquainted no doubt with my feelings of increasing despair at the situation in Israel, and the government's apparent inability or unwillingness to make the necessary improvements.

Well, now the people have pre-empted the government. Israeli voters decided to vote for change, and hope that the security they all deserve will now become a government priority. There is quite a lot to celebrate about this week, as the most anti-Zionist, anti-religious, anti-democratic government in Israel's history has been defeated, and replaced by a government more in tune with the history and morals of Jewish society, and what needs to be done to preserve them.

Yet, the victory is not yet complete. While I do have faith in Binyamin Netanyahu, believing that he will pursue policies more in line with Israel's interests rather than ones more in line with those of her enemies, there is much work that needs to be done.

Israel's relations with the PLO, with Syria, and with Arab rejectionist fronts all over the Middle East are not the biggest problem faced by the Jewish State. Indeed, they are not the problem at all, but merely a symptom of what truly ails Israel. In that, Netanyahu is likely correct in playing down differences between his future government and the previous Labour regime in terms of how they approach the negotiating process.

Rabin and Peres approached these negotiations with the mindset that Israel's relations with her neighbours are the biggest problem to be overcome. With that mindset, their approach had a bit more logic to it than was apparent to Nationalist Israelis. But the approach was wrong.

Rather, Israel's biggest problems are from within. Nothing proved that better than the apathy which the outgoing government showed to these true problems, allowing them to fester unmolested within society and explode in a most ugly fashion over the past two years or so.These problems include relations between religious and secular segments of Israeli society, and even within the religious segment, between various constituencies.

Other problems include the need for a drastic overhaul of the Israeli education system, which now produces educators such as Moshe Zimmerman of Hebrew University, who can get away with comparing Jews to Nazis. The education system also produces graduates who have no idea of the importance of the Land of Israel in Jewish history or to continued Jewish survival. Very few graduates of the Israeli school system are well-versed in Biblical History, in relation to the numbers that should be so versed.

Israel's system of military conscription needs to be overhauled, and exemptions need to be severely curtailed, while mandatory service needs to be made shorter, and a professional army needs to be raised. Those not serving in the military, for whatever reason, should all be participating in a registered community or social service program instead, as an expanded form of the current National Service program.

But perhaps the most important change that needs to be made, or rather completed, is electoral and parliamentary reform. It is not sufficient that the Prime Minister be directly elected. Rather, every member of Knesset should be directly elected by a geographic constituency to which he or she would then be directly acountable during the term of the government.

The Nationalist Camp in Israel has good reason to celebrate this week, but the Likud victory was so far only a hollow one. Let us not lose sight of the fact that the leadership inside the party is close to non-existant. So much so, that in the party primaries this past Spring, the party members saw fit to elect a total new-comer, and political unknown, to the position of Number 2 on the list behind only Netanyahu. To me, this speaks volumes to the lack of strong leadership in the party after Netanyahu. It is from this lacking group that Netanyahu now must build a cabinet, and that is a shame. Indeed, the same problem exists within Labour, and within most parties who are represented in the Knesset. And it is a problem of the electoral system.

If members of Knesset were elected based on their personal qualifications, and on their ability to defeat rivals in geographic areas, rather than on their ability to attract political patronage from party leaders and central committees, the quality of membership in the Knesset would at once be elevated to a much higher level, and most parties, together with the nation as a whole, would have a leadership of which they could be proud. And any party not able to attract quality members who could win direct personal election would not be represented in the Knesset. Lastly, to solve the problem of the widespread abuse of rights in Israel, in personal and other realms, a written constitution needs to be adopted. In this document would be enshrined the changes made in these areas, as well as a comprehensive guideline for the formation of governments and the election of representatives thereto. Nationalist Israelis, Zionists of all stripes, indeed, every Israeli, certainly has reason to celebrate well this week. They have made their choice, and their choice has been for national preservation. But the work is much that remains to be done. Israelis should be able to celebrate exponentially in four years time, once these changes have been made and society has healed.

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Yehuda Poch is a member of the Advisory Board of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies (June 2, 1996).

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