U.S.-style leader backed for Israel

The Baltimore Sun

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.

Yesterday, 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 quickly throw them out, in favor of American-style presidential rule.

The Cabinet voted 12 to 11 to endorse the reform proposal and send it to the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

But passage is far from certain, in part because the sponsor is a right-wing politician with growing popularity and leadership ambition. If Avigdor Lieberman were to benefit from his own reform, 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, 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, despite his misgivings. His centrist Fadima 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 elections that polls show he would lose.

Instability has 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 125 members elect the prime minister and Cabinet from among their ranks. Governing coalitions with a parliamentary majority are formed after negotiations among many parties but fall apart with chronic ease, allowing parliament to force new elections

Under Lieberman's 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; in that case the deputy prime minister would take over.

That would give Israel's leader powers similar to those of the U.S. president, but he still would be called prime minister. Israel's 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 12 seats in parliament. A book by Tel Aviv University's Gideon Doron advocating a "presidential regime" boosted the movement. Polls in recent months show that most Israelis want stronger leadership.

Some critics call the proposal 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.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad