With withdrawal agenda foiled, Olmert turns to political reform


JERUSALEM — Bereft of attractive foreign policy options and under attack for his handling of the war in Lebanon, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems set to launch an ambitious domestic agenda that he hopes can bolster his flagging prestige.

Signals are that the focus will be on reforming Israel’s unwieldy political system. If so, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu party, which is currently in the opposition, could become a key player. Lieberman advocates an American-style presidential system, and he and Olmert have been discussing terms for Yisrael Beiteinu’s joining the government.


But it won’t be easy. If the hawkish Lieberman comes aboard, it would dampen any lingering hope for peace moves with Syria or the Palestinians — which could lead Labor to leave the coalition.

Lieberman also insists on a law that would allow people whom the Orthodox rabbinate refuses to marry to have a form of civil marriage — which could frighten away Olmert’s other main coalition partner, the Sephardi Orthodox Shas Party.

Olmert and Lieberman met last Friday for two hours at the prime minister’s request. Afterward they published a joint statement agreeing to promote legislation to change the government system and complete the country’s unfinished constitution.

Many pundits, however, question their sincerity. Some argue that Olmert, unsure of Labor votes for the budget, badly wants Lieberman’s 11-member faction in the government, and that the reform talk is simply bait to get the party to join.

Others say that more than actually reforming the system, Lieberman wants to be seen as a mover and shaker. And there’s another theory: By wooing Lieberman, some say, Olmert is simply trying to pressure Labor into voting for the budget.

Still, there’s good reason for Olmert to focus on reform in earnest. The weaknesses of the current proportional electoral system are all too apparent: In its 58 years, Israel has had 31 governments, Cabinet ministers stay in the job for an average of just 16 months and major policy moves often depend on the whim of a single Knesset member.

For years, there has been a growing consensus in Israel that the current system — which leads to a plethora of parties, fragmentation of power and unwieldy coalitions — needs to be reformed to create conditions for greater stability, more continuity, effective long-term planning and, most of all, to allow the nation’s leaders to get things done.

In the run-up to this year’s March election, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Olmert’s Kadima parties both put government reform high on their list of priorities. Last September, President Moshe Katsav appointed a 70-member commission, giving it a year to come up with a blueprint for change. Before that, the Israel Democracy Institute published its recommendations for electoral reform.

But good intentions may not be enough. An attempt in the 1990s to change the system by moving to a system of direct election of the prime minister, with voters casting a separate ballot for parliamentary representatives, was intended to reduce partisan fragmentation, fortify the larger parties and strengthen the executive. It had the exact opposite effect and was scrapped after two elections.

Still, the public remains in favor of change, there’s a readiness in the Knesset to make a move and a number of competing plans for reform are on the table.

The aim of all the plans is to ensure smoother and stronger government by giving the prime minister (or president), the big parties and the Knesset more power.

Under Lieberman’s plan, a president would be elected directly by the people, a second ballot would choose representatives in Parliament, and parties would need to receive as much as 10 percent of the national vote to qualify for representation in the Knesset. Small parties would have to merge or face extinction.

Kadima’s plan calls for the leader of the largest party to automatically become prime minister, encouraging votes for the more dominant national parties like Kadima, Labor or Likud. It also calls for at least half the Knesset to be elected in constituency elections, a move that also favors the larger parties.

Several plans address the problem of Knesset members being appointed ministers, depleting the ranks of parliamentarians proper and obscuring the distinction between the executive and the legislature.

The Kadima plan, for example, advocates the Norwegian model, under which Knesset members who are appointed as Cabinet ministers must resign from Parliament. Lieberman and some members of the president’s commission suggest appointing experts or technocrats, not parliamentarians, as ministers.

Whether any of this actually becomes law will depend on how determined Olmert is to go through with the reform process. Some pundits doubt his stamina and question his intentions. Even if he only goes through the motions, they note, he stands to reap major political gains.

By wooing Lieberman, Olmert is signaling a move to the right, which could help him recapture voters who have left Kadima for Likud in the wake of the government’s perceived mishandling of the war. Moreover, bringing Lieberman into the coalition would make a major Cabinet reshuffle seem natural — and give Olmert the opportunity to remove Labor leader Amir Peretz from the Defense Ministry, subtly shifting much of the burden of blame for the war’s shortcomings from himself to Peretz.

If Lieberman joins the coalition, Peretz and his Labor party will face an acute dilemma: whether to remain part of a government that seems to be pursuing the worthy cause of electoral reform — but that has reached a dead end on one of Labor’s highest priorities, peacemaking with the Palestinians and Syria.

Writing in Yediot Achronot, political analyst Nahum Barnea summed up Labor’s dilemma by arguing that the war has changed Olmert from a leader who came to power promising far-reaching peace moves to a stonewaller, concerned only with hanging on to power.

Olmert, Barnea wrote, has changed from a Yitzhak Rabin to a Yitzhak Shamir: “From a leader who wanted to dictate a far-reaching political agenda, Israel going back to the 1967 borders unilaterally or by agreement, he is becoming a prime minister of the status quo.”

But will stonewalling, Shamir-style, win Olmert public kudos? Will it help Israel avert further violence with the Palestinians and perhaps another war, this time with Syria? That’s where the line between Kadima and Labor could be drawn in the not-too-distant future — regardless of whether or not progress is made on electoral reform.