That Ehud Olmert may remain at the helm for a few additional months, making life and death decisions at such a crucial time in our history, is utterly scandalous. But thank heaven, the most disastrous government Israel has ever experienced is now approaching its end. Had Olmert behaved honorably and resigned after the failed Second Lebanon War, he would have retained a modicum of dignity. Now he will depart in utter disgrace.
Our next objective must be to ensure that the shameful era of corruption, incompetence and erosion of democratic procedures we have undergone is not resurrected six months after a new regime has been established. We must acknowledge that corruption is not merely a consequence of unethical or dishonest individuals achieving power. It is equally a by-product of a flawed system lacking governance.
The greatest destabilizing factor has been the proportional representational system inflicted upon us by our Zionist founding fathers. Theoretically it implied pure democracy, but in practice it encouraged the emergence of one-dimensional minority groups able to undemocratically leverage their demands to the detriment of the nation. It also led to the centralization of power, with party hierarchies rather than electors determining whether individual political candidates were to be rewarded or punished.
This inherent weakness of the system was concealed during the early years of the state because the leaders then were overwhelmingly idealistic and dedicated Zionists and would never contemplate promoting their personal agendas above the welfare of the nation.
That is not to deny that even during that period, obtaining plum jobs in the public sector could be expedited by exploiting Vitamin P for protektzia, a code expression for links with the ruling Mapai establishment. In addition, even David Ben-Gurion’s economic guru Pinhas Sapir, a dedicated Zionist, was notorious for turning a blind eye to the law when it came to obtaining funds for the party.
But the stigma against corruption was so great, that in 1976 when housing minister Avraham Ofer was accused of misappropriating funds, he committed suicide. More strikingly, during his first term as prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin resigned instantly when it was disclosed that his wife had deposited a small sum in a foreign bank account in breach of currency regulations.
The most serious breakdown occurred at the outset of the Oslo era when, desperate to obtain a Knesset majority, Rabin shamelessly bribed corrupt opposition members, including Gonen Segev, who was appointed a minister but subsequently convicted of a drug-related felony.
From that point onward, in the absence of checks and balances and transparency, politicians began openly promoting their personal interests. A proliferation of scandals occurred, including president Ezer Weizman who was obliged to retire prematurely. However at that time Aryeh Deri, the Shas leader, was the only significant politician convicted for what was a minor offense, compared to malpractices by politicians subsequently exposed.
The primitive system of primaries alienated talented Israelis from entering the political arena and brought to the fore a new breed of politicians lacking ideological motivation, whose rise to power was determined by their effectiveness in stooping to the lowest common denominator and demonstrating the ability to provide jobs for the boys.
Public morality collapsed. Omri Sharon recruited criminal elements to provide support for his faction in the Likud central committee. Avram Burg was obliged to step down as leader of the Labor Party after it was disclosed that more Arab Israelis voted for him than were even registered on the Labor list.
When Ariel Sharon became prime minister, he introduced an authoritarian regime undermining the status of the Knesset and displaying contempt for the democratic process by overriding a Likud referendum – which he himself had initiated – opposing his disengagement policies. He also bypassed the government and destroyed his own party, creating Kadima which was largely based on personally handpicked malcontents with conflicting political affiliations who primarily joined the Sharon bandwagon to promote themselves.
When Olmert inherited the mantle of leadership without an election, the die was cast. The political arena was literally swarming with greedy self serving politicians, interested only in promoting themselves. The obscene scandals were never ending and included top leaders such as president Moshe Katsav, finance minister Avraham Hirchson, justice minister Haim Ramon and Olmert.
The government also forfeited any semblance of collective responsibility. Individual ministers publicly condemned the policies implemented by their prime minister, without feeling obliged to resign. Likewise the prime minister failed to inform the government of details of state assets he was unilaterally ceding to our adversaries in secret negotiations. No other Western democratic leadership would dare debase accountability in this manner.
Now the Olmert era is virtually over but unless his departure is accompanied by major reforms, the corrupt practices that have been the blight of our lives will soon reappear.
To obviate this, elections must be held to enable the people to elect new Knesset members committed to reform rather than once again merely having ministers playing musical chairs among themselves.
The electoral system which is the root source of most of the problems must be reformed. A framework providing parliamentarians with direct accountability to their constituency should be substituted for the current proportional representation system. Party preferences should be introduced to enable minority groups to retain influence while denying them the ability of imposing narrow sectional demands.
The next prime minister must restore ministerial responsibility in order to ensure the primacy of government and collective decision. Ministers must understand that if they publicly criticize policies adopted by their government, they are obliged to resign.
The state comptroller should assume a key role, ensuring that checks and balances are maintained and that the legislature always operates in a transparent manner. Draconian penalties must be enforced to deter politicians from succumbing to the temptation of taking undue advantage of the system for their personal benefit.
If new leaders commit themselves to such a regime, a new era of governance could emerge in which corruption and cronyism would be drastically curtailed.
The government could then also tap into the extraordinary talented brainpower at its disposal and develop long term strategies to deal with our adversaries. Instead of the endless empty threats, genuine deterrence would again apply. The peace process would be maintained, but only on the basis of genuine reciprocity.
Long neglected internal problems would be reviewed. These include poverty, education, the radicalization and social standing of Arab Israelis, the increasing polarization between the religious and nonobservant and the looming water crisis.
Despite what they have undergone in recent years, Israelis are a remarkable people. Given normal decent leaders with whom to interact they will overcome these challenges. The dream of our Zionist founders of becoming a light unto the nations can yet be achieved.
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