July 8, 2009
Will Netanyahu Change Israel Forever?
While keen observers of Israel's political scene clearly understand that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel's most Americanized prime minister in its history, little is ever discussed as to what this means for the future of Israel's political system.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has spent more time in the U.S. than any of the previous twelve prime ministers in Israel's history. Because of this, his perception of the world has clearly been affected.
In a starkly American way, he is an enthusiast for democracy, egalitarianism and civil liberties. Netanyahu, in his well publicized June 14, 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, stated, "I share the desire of the President of the United States to bring about a new era of reconciliation in our region." Netanyahu believes that if the Islamic states that surround Israel will just embrace post-modernism as it regards democracy, egalitarianism and civil liberties and put the Koran on the back shelf that there will be peace. In Netanyahu's fantasy, a vibrant regional economy -- central to his vision -- and western education will remake the conflict. Ultimately, his view differs from Obama's in nuance only.
While often depicted in the media as a hardliner, a rightist, or a hawk, he is no more these things than was former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Netanyahu is, in the realm of ideas, a post-modern disciple; there is nothing essentially conservative or classical in his world-view. He sees religiosity as something best left in the past; he is the consummate pragmatist.
From his previous stint as Israel's prime minister from 1996-1999, Netanyahu should have learned that the political structure of Israel must be fundamentally changed if he and his Likud party are to ever achieve the kind of hegemony in Israeli politics and culture that the socialists held from 1948-1977.
We should expect the following from Netanyahu:
1) A radical expansion of executive powers. This expansion will be highly difficult to roll back when the power shifts back to the leftist parties. (See Public Policy and Electoral Reform: The Case of Israel by Gideon Doron and Michael Harris for Netanyahu's record on this in his first term.)
2) An increase in the use of American political strategists such as Arthur J. Finkelstein, a New York based Republican consultant. Finkelstein has worked on Israeli campaigns for over ten years and has advised Netanyahu in the past. More time and money will be spent protecting popularity ratings than substantive progress. Netanyahu will also encourage his admirers to continue supporting sycophant think tanks. Ideas will be trumped by image.
3) Netanyahu will once again push for the return of direct election of the prime minister-- a particular personal fixation that allowed his election in 1996. This effort will be paired with a renewed and sustained effort to move Israel to personality based election campaigning.
4) Tighter control of the Likud primary election system. Netanyahu will want to avoid, at all cost, any efforts by the right wing of Likud to make the Likud into the nationalist party that its Herut party forefathers intended. He finds the rhetoric of the Orthodox Jewish and pro-settlement nationalists to be embarrassing and distasteful. He wants the Likud to be portrayed as analogous to the blue-blood, pre-Reagan Republican Party in the United States. It matters not that Likud's platform is much closer to the Democratic Party on far too many domestic issues.
5) Party governance in the Likud will become even less democratic. A purge of the religious and nationalist elements of the party will be carried out. The internal party courts and apparatuses will be fully deployed in this effort. Primary elections in Likud will become rubber stamps.
6) The Netanyahu camp will insist on a dramatic increase in the minimum Knesset election threshold as a centerpiece of their political system reboot. The lasting effect of reengineering the Knesset election threshold will be to permanently destroy all small and medium size parties and those renegade Likud elements through marginalization.
The goal is to manipulate the Knesset landscape so that the current twelve parties will be whittled down significantly. The change in the threshold will cause one combined far left Jewish / Arab list and one combined far right / Orthodox Jewish list to be created. Netanyahu's goal is to create a system with just two parties within the next two to four elections. Likud and Labor will be increasingly portrayed as Republicans and Democrats. Factions will develop within each party just as has taken place within American politics since Teddy Roosevelt. Netanyahu will make moves in the future to change the system even more. Both Tzipi Livni's Kadima and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu parties will be placed into the vise and, if at all possible, eliminated or forced to negotiate a merger. The settlers in particular would have their political clout diminished to a potentially fatal level.
Netanyahu, however, with his obsessions of all things American, will not support a constitution for Israel and will continue to marginalize this fundamental flaw within the Israeli body politic. As constitutional scholar Dr. Paul Eidelberg has pointed out, there is an enduring "myth that Israel is a functioning, free democracy with a constitution, representative districts and a balance of powers similar to the U.S. system." Netanyahu will do nothing to destroy that myth while maintaining the status-quo after all; he has been one of its greatest beneficiaries.
Postscript: The book The Myth of Israeli Democracy: Toward A Truly Jewish Israel by Paul Eidelberg is a must read. Order the book and share it with everyone you know who is concerned about Israel's future. Eidelberg has long sought the introduction of a bicameral legislature and the direction election of members of Knesset. Those innovations will go a long way in revitalizing Israel's wellbeing.
Moshe Phillips is a member of the executive committee of the Philadelphia Chapter of Americans for a Safe Israel / AFSI. The chapter's website is at: phillyafsi.com and Moshe's blog can be found at phillyafsi.blogtownhall.com