The Prime Minister

May 1, 2008
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Ruth Gavison: Today’s prime minister needs to combine clarity of vision with practical goals for the government. Israel’s strategic challenges are huge. It is the role of the government to prepare to meet them. This requires the best people as ministers, the best staff people and civil servants to facilitate their work, and an ability to derive policies from long-term goals. Much, of course, depends on the number and the size of the parties participating in the government and their different platforms. And of course, Israel is a very small country. The nature of the geostrategic constraints — military, political, economic — will all impact the outcome.

Gidi Grinstein: I would name the structures of Israel’s electoral system and political institutions as having the most powerful effect on the ability to govern the State of Israel. Israel suffers from one of the weakest governments among developed nations. There’s a grave mismatch between, on the one hand, the complex challenges we face as a nation and our population’s potential in terms of education and technological savvy, and, on the other hand, a highly underperforming government and public sector. Our electoral system generates powerful incentives for short-term, sectarian, and populist conduct, while our reality demands long-term, broad, and substantive conduct. We urgently need a more stable government and a more cohesive Knesset and legislature.

Gavison: I agree with Gidi that we have a serious problem. However, I’m less certain that a change in the electoral system will provide a remedy. For instance, a two-party system, basically the models in England and the U.S., generates more stability but might not be workable or desirable in Israel.

Grinstein: Democratic societies choose where their diversity will manifest itself: in parties or within the parliament. Britain and the U.S. represent one end of the spectrum, where diversity is almost entirely on the party level, while on the national level there are only two parties. Israel represents the other end of the spectrum: great diversity at the level of the parliament. We need to strike a different balance. Israel would remain a healthy parliamentary democracy even if we had only five or seven parties instead of eleven or thirteen. While a certain level of fragmentation is essential in order to reflect the structure of Israeli society, today we are over fragmented and need to consolidate.

Gavison: While I agree, I’m afraid that the five big existing blocks will continue to create an uneasy move between paralysis and instability — the paralysis of a unity government or the instability of a very small coalition. I would consider ideas such as adding a chamber and creating a two-chamber solution so that one chamber would be more directly representative and the other would be more effective. The interplay between the two chambers would also provide a much-needed check on parliamentary power. At present the court carries the entire burden of policing our legislature, which is bad for politics and bad for the court.

Grinstein: Historically, Israeli politics were most stable whenever we had a critical political mass at the center.

Gavison: True, but that was under the same electoral system we have now! And there’s no structural way to recreate a centrist party. So while the instability of government is a serious issue, it is not clear whether changes in the electoral system could change that.

Susan Berrin: I wonder if you would comment on the tension caused by striving to become a global economic power while remaining mired in a foreign policy defined by years of conflict with Israel’s closest neighbors. How do you balance economics and prosperity on one side of the scale with security and foreign policy limitations on the other?

Grinstein: The weakness of our international standing is not inevitable, and we can improve it dramatically. First, we belong to one of the most powerful networks in the world, the Jewish network. We can tap into it and empower our many supporters and friends as effective communicators of Israel’s case. Second, our diplomacy and national public relations are simply badly managed and need to be overhauled. Third, we can make a qualitative, distinctly Jewish and Israeli contribution to the world — tikkun olam — in areas we have excelled in such as agriculture, public health, and water technology and management. Finally, we can tackle some structures that compromise our standing such as the basic notions of international law as it regards fighting terrorism.

All of this requires a significant reallocation of resources. Israel’s biggest threats are not only military but also political and diplomatic; we spend on our foreign service only two percent of what we spend on our military. That’s an unacceptable ratio. Chabad has 20 times more emissaries in the world than Israel has professional diplomats.

Gavison: I like the directions drawn by Gidi. My picture is a bit less optimistic, however. For example, I am worried about our internal social and economic structure, the troubling signs of societal deterioration, and the growing gaps between segments of the population. And I am extremely reticent to talk about a “Jewish network” because it touches on pernicious images of Israel and the Jews. Though I agree with Gidi about the ineffectiveness of our public relations, our military threat is very, very serious. And though the economy is flourishing, we can’t count on this remaining so. We need to think strategically about the military challenges Israel faces in the region and the implications these challenges have for Israel’s economics and diplomacy. More important than improving our public relations and increasing our diplomatic corps, we must have a coherent statement for these diplomats to express.

The southern part of Israel has been subjected to rocket fire without effective Israeli military or political response. The lives of a large segment of Israelis at the periphery are extremely vulnerable. Moreover, Israel is perceived by some as the villain in a very unstable area of the world — and responsible for one of the greatest dangers to world peace. This perception is wrong, not the reality, and we should not take it lightly. There is also the fact that we have been occupying for more than 40 years territories densely populated by Palestinians, who are not Israeli citizens. These are very serious matters. We need a comprehensive response that acknowledges that this is the way we are seen by populations — not necessarily governments — around the world.

Grinstein: For the foreseeable future, a certain measure of violence around us will be a fact of life. This violence will be funneled to friction points. Today it’s Sderot. In the past it was Kiryat Shmona, Tel-Aviv, El-Al airplanes, or Beit Shean. In the 2nd Lebanon War, we saw the collapse of the distinction between homeland and frontline. In fact, the entire State of Israel may be “frontline” in times of conflict. We must therefore build vibrant and resilient communities — a centerpiece of our national agenda — not only at the center of Israel but also at the periphery. This is a challenge that is both a national security as well as a development one.

Gavison: Israel will not survive unless we share a commitment, irrespective of where we live, that this is our home and we’re willing to do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to protect it. This requires an ability to sustain periods of hardship. And it’s easier to sustain periods of hardship when we feel solidarity; when the north is shelled, we in the south or the center don’t just go on with our lives. I would expect an effective and responsible government to communicate credibly not only with words but also with deeds — to invest in vulnerable communities under attack, to offer resources that show solidarity, and to be prepared for contingencies.

At a time of crisis, power needs to be coordinated from the center while effective help must be on the spot. The civil government and military authorities must coordinate effectively. This requires long-term investment and implementation; it’s not enough to have the best policies. We need to begin at the grassroots and make things happen in schools and hospitals and civic centers. And these top-down and bottom-up social processes need not only tending but also to be part of the national ethos in a structured way. This was so at the beginning of the state and was responsible for many of our achievements. That ethos is weakening now; it needs to be revitalized and endorsed by the government from municipalities to units in the field.

Berrin: What has contributed to that erosion of national spirit?

Gavison: Israel has been the victim of its own success. No one can maintain a revolution forever. It’s natural that once the basic challenges of existence are met, people want to live; they want to address the next question on the list. Crises extract a very heavy price. But we should not lose our direction; we must maintain the sense that we’re here because this is a country with a mission, and that mission is being challenged. It’s the responsibility of government to articulate this, that despite a much higher standard of living, we cannot take our lives here for granted.

Grinstein: I would only add that in the 1990s there was a deep-seated hope, perhaps illusion, about the imminent end of conflict with the Palestinians and hence with the Arab world. The Intifada in 2000, however, served as a wake-up call that we’ll be in the struggle for a long time. The second thing is the relatively recent growth in economic disparity. In a globalized society like Israel, those who play globally become relatively ultra-rich and super-powerful. It is estimated that there are 7,000 Israeli millionaires, more than one percent of the population. At the same time, more than 20 percent of the population is poor. These disparities are expected to grow. This is why it is critical to have a society of meritocracy where anyone has a sense that they can make it on a leveled playing field, where people have solid foundations of education, opportunity for life-long learning, and flexible job markets. These issues have been neglected and should be at the top of the agenda.

Gavison: And seeking peace. We should accept responsibility for what we are doing to hinder or delay reconciliation. But we should also be very aware that some of our partners are not indicating interest in making peace with us. It’s critical for Israelis to live with this paradox, the contradiction of actively wanting peace yet also understanding that we may never have peace. Moreover, at times it may not be possible to reach peace — and we must then learn to manage the conflict in a way that serves our long-term goals, including the necessity of not perpetuating our rule over people who want their own self-determination just as we want ours.

Grinstein: I agree that unrealistic expectations are dangerous. Most Israeli governments that have set unattainable objectives have led to massive disappointment. Calibrating expectations is a critical task of the political leadership.

Berrin: What impact has that disappointment, over and over again, had on the makeup of Israeli society?

Gavison: Today, people are very sober — wanting to promote chances for peace but not wanting to base policies on wishful thinking. The gamble should be very measured and very minimal so that if what we hope for does not materialize, the situation won’t be catastrophic. Political leaders must seek peace not only to achieve stability but also to have justice. Our ultimate concern is the wellbeing, the survival, and the flourishing of Israel and the Jewish collective in it. We should pursue these goals within the constraints of human rights. We must do this responsibly, without letting wishful thinking mislead us.

Grinstein: Another aspect of continued conflict, adversity, and challenge is that it is has pushed us to be creative, resourceful, and innovative. We have turned our major challenges into significant assets. The Arab boycott pushed us to embrace trade as few other countries did; similarly water scarcity encouraged us to become a world leader in desalination and irrigation; our defense challenges turned us into leaders in electro-optics and communications. We have a mentality of assertive experimentation that is a very attractive aspect of Israeli society.

Gavison: I agree that necessity breeds creativity, innovation, and initiative. But the necessity of fighting cancer and global warming and issues not directly connected with continued threats to our existence would provide enough incentive for us to excel. Striking a good agreement with our neighbors should not condemn us to apathy and failure. Moreover, since the security threat is a permanent feature of our existence, it has, in fact, made us less innovative, energetic, and creative than we used to be. Some of our systems have become too bureaucratic, too routine. We should create incentives to keep the spirit of creativity and originality more alive. This is not simply a luxury but a critical aspect of our continued success.

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Ruth Gavison is the Haim H. Cohn Professor of Human Rights in the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and founding president of Metzilah, a new center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought. Gavison served as a founding member and president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and as a member of the Winograd Committee to investigate the 2nd Lebanon War.

Gidi Grinstein is founder and president of the Re'ut Institute, an Israeli nonpartisan policy group focusing on strengthening the Zionist vision to meet the Jewish state's evolving challenges. Grinstein has served in the Office of Prime Minister Ehud Barak as the secretary and coordinator of the negotiation team of the government of Israel on the Permanent Status Agreement between Israel and the PLO (1999-2001). Grinstein and Gavison shared a conversation about leading the state as its prime minister.

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