Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Monday, April 22, 2002
Draft Manifesto for a National Liberal Party for Israel.

One of the many unfortunate consequences of the current war is that it has deferred discussion over other pressing problems in Israeli life. Israel is a deeply troubled democracy, and it has been relatively unsuccessful in trying to reform its major defects. Attempts to do so have tended to worsen the divisions in Israeli life rather than to mend them. The one possible positive of the current war from a political reform perspective is the degree to which it has created a real sense of national unity. A party that understood how to capitalize on that unity could have enormous potential.

Here is my initial draft of what the platform for such a party might be. I think the best term for its political orientation is National Liberal. That is to say, it is a national party, devoted to the realization of the political and cultural advancement of the Jewish people through the Jewish state. And it is a liberal party, devoted to individual freedom of speech, assembly, religion and contract, and to the rule of law. My proposed name for the party: Am Chofshi B'Artzeinu ("A Free People in Our Homeland"), the stated aim of the Zionist dream from the end of Ha-Tikvah, the Israeli National Anthem.

A National Liberal Party would advocate a strong Zionist policy for Israel: encouragement of aliyah, encouragement of a Jewish-oriented national culture, and the development of the Land. However, as a liberal party, they would also advocate pursuing such objectives in a manner that would protect liberty and provide accoutability to the people. Thus, development would be pursued through local authorities more than through a policy of centralism, and proper compensation would be provided when the state exercised eminent domain. Similarly, equality in the provision of government services would be guaranteed, a particular concern of the Arab sector. A single, Zionist-oriented curriculum would be promoted for the schools, but schools would be encouraged to compete for students under a universal voucher system, subject to government regulation and audit. A religious establishment for Israel would be secured in a form that could be recognized by all Jews, but freedom of religion - for Jews as well as non-Jews - would be guaranteed, and government involvement in the funding and administration of religious institutions would be reduced or, where possible, eliminated.

The primary plank of such a party would be: to establish a written constitution for the State of Israel. This is normally considered a left-wing issue, and I'm describing a center-right party. But I believe that the left misunderstands the purpose of a constitution. The purpose of a constitution is not to provide a blunt instrument for a secular clerisy to use in its war against religion. And its purpose is not to enshire conventional plattitudes as fundamental law. The purpose of a constitution is to place beyond the reach of ordinary politics certain bedrock structural elements of a political system. Ordinary politics takes these elements for granted, and operates within their constraints. Without agreement on such basic elements, Israeli political life is forever in danger of spinning off in an extreme direction. And awareness of this drives a divisive balance-of-power politics in Israel that is destructive of national life. Important elements within Israeli life hold to understandings of the meaning and nature of the State of Israel that are incompatible with that State's continued existence. These include: rejection of the idea of a Jewish state in favor of a "state of all citizens"; the infusion of the state with Messianic significance such that the state's decisions are illegitimate if they fail to advance or obstruct the progress of the Messiah in history; and the refusal to acknowledge the law of the state as the supreme law of the land, recognizing only religious law as legitimate. In the effort to establish a written constitution, these alternatives will have to be addressed, their supporters won over with certain compromises, and as a result, these alternatives finally buried as threats to the State of Israel.

The primary aims of a written constitution would be: to establish Israel as a Jewish state and a Republic; to ensure that the organs of government are accountable to the people and that the people are left free to pursue their individual visions of the good life; and to serve as the object of veneration for future generations of Israelis who look to it as the guide for answering the pressing political questions of their day. To achieve these aims, the National Liberal party would advocate five major structural reforms as part of the constitution:

(1) To establish a strictly limited but secure place for the religious establishment in the State of Israel. It is essential that Israel have a clear Jewish character, and this cannot be divorced from religion. Regardless of what the various "movements" within Judaism may think (and I am an affiliate of one - the Conservative movement), that means there must be an Orthodox Jewish establishment, because only such an establishment could possibly be recognized by the entire Jewish people. But it is also essential that Israel not become a theocracy, and therefore it must strictly limit the scope of halacha in the operation of the state. The Chief Rabbinate should be recognized as the official halachic authority as regards the State of Israel, should have authority over questions like personal status and supervision of kashrut and so forth, and should advise the state on halachic matters. However, the role of the rabbinate and halacha should be strictly limited in two ways. First, the Chief Rabbi must be accountable to the people. This could be achieved by having him selected (presumably chosen from a slate of appropriate candidates selected by the rabbinate itself) by a convention of the religious councils (which are themselves popularly elected) and/or by providing for impeachment and removal by the legislature for crimes or for undermining the Constitution. Second, the state must reduce the scope of its involvement in religion. My proposal for privatization of the school systems follows below. A similar procedure could be enacted for synagogues, which are currently supported directly by the state through the channels of political parties. The goal is to have a constitutionally protected role for the rabbinate and for Orthodoxy specifically while confining that role to specific functions and eliminating the corruption that accompanies the intertwining of the political and the religious.

(2) To strengthen the executive branch. Israel has a symbolic Presidency and a strong Prime Ministership. This has several unfortunate consequences. First, it centralizes power overmuch in the government. The legislature has all the power, and within the legislature the government has all the power, and within the government the Prime Minister has a great deal of the power. Second, it means that coalition politics determine the nature of that government, which factionalizes the country. Third, it means that Israelis have only one ballot on which to express their views on both matters of national security and identity and matters of parochial interest. The direct election of the Prime Minister was intended to solve this problem, but failed because while it gave the Prime Minister an independent mandate it weakened his power base within the legislature on the basis of which he had to actually govern. A better system would be to create a strong Presidency, directly elected by national plebescite and with broad powers over national security but limited authority in economic or legal matters. This is rougly comparable to what obtains in France. While that system has been criticized of late, it is the most stable constitution France has seen in generations, and it would serve Israel even better because of the unique importance of foreign and defense policy in Israel.

(3) To devolve power to the regions. One of the worst aspects of Israel's current system is the extreme economic centralism. The center of the country is over-crowded and over-developed while the regions are developed largely on the basis of ideological or national-security imperatives, not for economic reasons. The ongoing tragedy of the Negev is an extreme example of the consequences of this centralism. The solution is to devolve power to the regions. A system of governors with real powers of taxation and economic management should be established, able to act without getting permission from the Knesset. Coupled with a serious effort at privatization, and the establishment of an upper house of Parliament, such a system would give underdeveloped regions their best shot at controlling their own destinies and paving their own paths to progress. Such a system would also be extremely useful in combatting the alienation of Arab regions of the country; an Arab governor in the Galil, for instance, would have to represent many Jews, and a Jewish governor many Arabs, which is not the case with the Knesset, which sidelines Arab parties. It would also provide an alternative to the current path to national power, which is almost exclusively through the military, because that is the only way in which future Prime Ministers can demonstrate their executive ability (as well as because of the extreme importance of security matters).

(4) To reform the Knesset. Reforms would take two forms: the end (or reform) of proportional representation and the establishment of an upper house of Parliament. The upper house would serve several purposes. First, it would be the protector of the constitution. It would serve as the highest constitutional court, the only court authorized to strike down a law as unconstitutional. This is essential, because the existing Supreme Court is and will likely remain a combatant in the culture war, and shows no signs that it would respect the language and intent of a written constitution. The upper house would also try all impeachments of other government officials. Second, it would have the ability to delay legislation, much as the upper house of the British Parliament does. Third, it would provide representation for various sectors of Israeli society. In my conception, the upper house would not be directly elected, but would be indirectly accountable, much as the American Supreme Court or the Israeli President is today. Seats would be reserved for apppointment by the Chief Rabbinate, the regional governors, the President, as well as, potentially, the Histadrut or even the World Zionist Congress, representing Diaspora Jewry. Appointments would have to be approved by the Knesset (the lower house). Members of the upper house would be appointed for single, fixed terms of considerable length. The lower house would retain most of the legislative power. It would continue to initiate all legislation, would elect the Prime Minister from among its number to form a government, would confirm all officers reporting to the President, including the Chief of Staff (head of the armed forces), and would supervise the regulatory bureaucracy responsible to the Prime Minister. The chief change to the lower house would be to either eliminate proportional representation entirely, moving to a district system with preference voting, or to raise the limit for inclusion in the Knesset to a 5% share of the national vote. Either change would create significant incentives to form large, centrist parties composed of broad coalitions of interests rather than the current system of splinter groups. The ultimate goal of all these legislative reforms would be to establish a conservative center that would defend the constitution of the country and a dynamic legislature capable of taking decisive action within the framework of that constitution.

(5) To liberate the education system. Currently, Israeli education is balkanized by political control of the different school systems (secular, religious-Zionist, religious non-Zionist and Arab). Funding for the schools and battles over the curriculum consume enormous energies in Israeli politics. A new system must be inaugurated which moves away from government management of the schools and towards government regulation of a private school system. A universal voucher would empower parents to select the school for their children. The requirements for a school to be recognized by the state would be: teaching of a mandatory civics curriculum or an audited equivalent alternative; teaching of a mandatory Jewish religious curriculum or an audited equivalent alternative; and submitting to regular audits as to general pedagogical quality. Religious schools could continue to function as they do now, but their funding would not come from religious parties but from religious parents, and they would be obliged to teach students about the constitution of the State of Israel, about secular Israeli and Jewish history, and about how a democratic and republican system operates, in order to accept state vouchers. (Schools could of course always refuse to accept state funds through vouchers and remain open on a purely privately funded basis.) Arab-majority schools could continue to function as they do currently, but would have to accept state oversight of the curriculum and teach the same lessons about the Israeli constitution and the democratic system. Jewish students in non-religious schools would have to learn the basics of Jewish religion. The main advantage of a universal voucher system is that it would simultaneously empty the violent and dysfunctional schools that plague the Jewish slums of Israel and empty the fundamentalist Shas schools that are the most available alternative currently available. It would also enable Reform and Conservative schools to get off the ground financially, putting them on the same footing as the Orthodox religious schools in competing for parents' vouchers. The risks that a voucher system would stratify the education system economically or reduce cultural cohesion would be of greater concern if these precise problems were not endemic in the existing system of corrupt party control of education.

Apart from such structural changes, a constitution would of course include the usual enumerated rights of free speech, assembly, religion, protections for private property and guarantees of equal provision of state services and equal treatment by the state's laws. Such a bill of rights is the main reason why the left has been active in promoting the idea of a written constitution for Israel. But the real importance of a constitution lies in its structural arrangements. If these are poorly-designed, the government will be ineffective either in doing the people's business or in protecting their rights. If they are well-designed, then the people's rights will likely be protected because the people, fundamentally and over a long span of time, want them to be.

Within the above constitutional framework, a National Liberal party would advocate: a liberal trade policy, strong independence for monetary authorities, refusal to subject Israeli citizens to the authority of supra-national entities, a Zionist-oriented civics curriculum, the maintenance of a strong deterrent, protection of private property rights (and adequant compensation for exercise of eminent domain), development of the Negev, a strong military response to terrorism (killing terrorists and attacking states that sponsor terrorism), and a diplomatic posture that recognition of Israel is a pre-condition for negotiations with rejectionist Arab regimes (e.g. Syria), and not the reward for the return of territory (the reward for the return of territory being peace and full normalization of relations). That sounds a lot like the Likud platform, but Likud has always been dominated by the issues of settlements and the territories, which are important but should not be the defining question of the major right-of-center party in Israel. The time has come for a National Liberal party to form whose central question will not be Jewish land but the Jewish State. These are not mutually exclusive questions, but the time has come - even now, in the midst of the Oslo war - for a change of emphasis, a change that will enable the center-right to articulate a vision of Israel in the future as more than a garrison state, not as the result of concessions to its enemies but as the result of realizing the enormous potential of a Jewish Republic.