Avigdor Lieberman's arrival in the Israeli cabinet is symptomatic of the degradation of the country's political system, writes Azmi Bishara
Israel will probably not adopt a presidential system now that Avigdor Lieberman's party has joined the government coalition though the acceptance of his proposed law setting up just such a system was one of his conditions for joining.
A majority of ministers, who in fact oppose the bill, voted for it knowing it will never get past the Knesset. A majority of the government voted contrary to its beliefs for tactical reasons — that is, ministers lied when they claimed they supported a presidential system and voted for it. Lieberman himself lied when he accepted that his conditions had been met. It is a game of flagrant, mutual lies now weighing down politics and political commentary to the point of boredom.
Israel has never tried a presidential system though it has experimented with direct prime ministerial elections. Although it cancelled the system after three terms it is still suffering the consequences. The two- tiered voting system, one for the prime minister and one for members of parliament, broke large parties into medium and small entities that came to reflect identity and sect whereas the political affiliation of voters was reflected in their prime ministerial choice.
When we consider theories of democracy and its application we usually talk about two possible democratic systems, presidential and parliamentary. This is the focus of debate in the Arab world when discussing possible models to be adopted after the transition to democracy — a transition that has been talked to death. Here I would like to leave such familiar terrain.
In our contemporary world 32 of the 80 democratic countries that exist can be described as relatively stable democracies and they include only two presidential systems. Other countries with presidential systems are the relatively untried new democracies of Latin America and Africa. European democracy favours the parliamentary system. France combines the two systems, as does India, the only enduring democracy established in the Third World directly after the colonial period.
In all the surveys, standards, and research that evaluate democratic practice, including the World Values Survey and Freedom House, parliamentary democracies are ranked higher than presidential ones. Parliamentary democracies occupy the top 20 slots out of 80 based on indicators like sovereignty of the law, efficiency, political stability, anti-corruption efforts, transparency, accountability, and respect for human rights as well as for their treatment of socioeconomic gaps. Parliamentary democracy is the type of democracy we think of first when we imagine a system that allows people to choose their representatives, and it allows citizen-based organisations a greater degree of influence.
When Israelis and others think of the presidential system, they think of the United States, an exception among the world's stable democracies. In contrast, in Latin America in the 1950s and 60s, the adoption of the US system led to disasters. The most attractive thing about the presidential system in times of crisis is the image of the strong president, untouched by corruption and corrupt party members in parliament. In fact, in domestic policy the president of the US has less power and authority than most prime ministers in parliamentary systems since most domestic issues are in the hands of individual states and their authority balances and acts as a brake on that of the president. This means that the president, in normal times, is less strong than is commonly thought. In addition the office is open to corruption in the absence of serious mechanisms for accountability, as we have seen in successive French presidencies.
The desire for a strong man, proposed by parties and the elite as a political solution to instability, does not lead to presidential or parliamentary democracy but to dictatorship. This is more of a danger in presidential systems than parliamentary democracies. More than 65 per cent of the world's presidential democracies have collapsed and been replaced by dictatorships at various times in their history, while only 36 per cent of parliamentary democracies have crumbled. Some 75 per cent of the world's parliamentary democracies are considered stable compared to only 25 per cent of presidential systems.
The Israeli system of government is a parliamentary democracy — that at least is how it is classified by research centers who have appointed themselves the judge of such things. In recent years Israel has been placed in the lowest ranks among parliamentary democracies, its score approaching that of presidential democracies in the Third World. In Israel the parliamentary system is experiencing a real crisis. Governments stay in office for shorter times, parties sprout like wild mushrooms and the mentality of the European vanguard elite that established Israel's democracy has gone to never return. Lieberman's arrival in government is a symptom of the crisis, not a solution. Simply discussing a change in the electoral system as part of partisan efforts to lengthen the government coalition's life — not implement its platform — is evidence of the shallowness of the debate and the corruption of Israeli politics which is now openly about retaining one's position; ideology has been replaced by seatology, though at such a reduced level it has failed.
This is a government that has lost majority support though this should not pose a problem in a real democracy. The government is elected once every four years, not in a daily poll. But this government has abandoned the political platform, the disengagement plan, on the basis of which it was elected. The government announced after the war in Lebanon that it is not seeking peace as an alternative to disengagement. Those who listen well will realise that what Olmert is saying is that he wants peace with Syria but he doesn't want to negotiate with President Al-Assad and he doesn't want to return the Golan. He wants to negotiate with the Palestinian president but he has no programme for reaching a settlement.
Olmert opened the coalition in Lieberman's direction to stave off the right's criticism of his government after its poor performance in Lebanon. In effect it means that he has chosen confrontation, or at least escalation.
Lieberman is a militant, ideological rightist, and his project is similar to that of the neo-conservatives in its explicitness and reassessment of values. He is secular to the point of atheism. He is trying to change the balance between religion and the state not to make it more liberal or democratic but more communal and sectarian, though without distinguishing between the two. For Lieberman a Russian need only serve in the army to be treated as a converted Jew. This nationalistic, rather than religious, dimension of conversion is close to the Zionist left — for example, to Yossi Beilin — and it constitutes the basis of dialogue between them, but it is not the only common ground. He also shares with the left a concern with "the demographic issue" and the need to get rid of the Palestinians in the framework of an agreement in which they give up all their historic demands with the exception of a political entity, which just happens to be an Israeli demand as well. Lieberman clearly wants an entity to be an agent for Israel. He does not fear its existence — on the contrary he distinguishes himself from the Zionist left by demanding a strip of Palestinian villages, home to some 200,000 Arabs, to live as citizens inside the Green Line. He proposes "giving" rights to th
ose who perform their military service in the Israeli army. He is distinguished from the traditional right in his explicit talk about a territorial settlement. Like the neo-cons he encourages Israel to come to terms with its power, to be open about it in the region and ready to use it. In Lieberman we have a secular, European militant right-winger who is uninterested in quoting the Torah. He wants to see Israel with a strong capitalist system that imitates the US, and he does not fear the use of naked force. He recognises no rights for the Arabs but for demographic and security reasons he accepts a Palestinian entity that could absorb the Palestinians.
Lieberman's language is crudely simplistic. There is the constant pretense of realism and pragmatism and a directness that is attractive to the European secular right. As Lieberman says he does not seek to please the world or the Arabs. The Arab who wants to be a citizen must serve in the army; those who refuse to serve in the army must accept their status as "resident" without civil rights or the franchise. This is about the civic and legal transfer of those who remain in Israel and are not part of the territorial exchange. Lieberman's constituency of Russian immigrants come from a country in which the resettlement of millions of individuals and the extinction of entire peoples were common in the Stalin era. They are shocked to find Arabs in this country — no one told them they were there.
It is difficult to listen to a Russian immigrant without intelligence or culture, who still does not speak acceptable Hebrew after 30 years in Israel informing you of the conditions of citizenship in your own country. It is hard to take seriously someone I saw with my own eyes, in the days when we were building the Arab student movement in Israeli universities, as a cowardly student who, immediately upon his arrival from Russia joined the militant, violent right led by Tzachi Hanegbi and began to threaten and take part in the right's violence against us, although we knew of his cowardice from experience. The problem is that he knows that we know; this is the root of his complex.
I am not always plagued by these feelings. All politicians backed up by military force and prisons have people in their past who knew them as young men. Undoubtedly George Bush has acquaintances who knew him as a drunk and a failure. It is not particularly helpful but how can I write seriously about or analyse the phenomenon of Lieberman without saying something about the man's mediocrity, his foolishness and his personal cowardice even as he advocates a never-ending war? But hasn't this always been the case with most fascist movements in history? There is no solace in this knowledge save that it gives one a personal freedom from the stupidities and lies of the famous.
The far right enters the den of opportunists and appears principled. It enters the Sodom and Gomorrah of politics and deal-making and comes out pious and righteous. Just by entering the circle Lieberman has felled two birds with one stone. First of all he has earned legitimacy; he is no longer merely a foolish immigrant who wants a strong-arm regime. He has set himself up as a national siren, warning people of the Iranian threat, but he has no strategic mind. Of all the targets in the world, in the past he threatened to blow up the Aswan Dam. Secondly, he did not demand ministerial posts for practical purposes, but asked for one tailor-made ministry that embodies the principle he upholds. In so doing he looks like the one person who has come to implement a political platform. The ministry made to order for him is the Ministry of Strategic Threats.
Only in Israel could such a thing be created. This is a country that has not yet appointed a minister of social affairs, but after coalition negotiations now has a Ministry of Strategic Threats. Perhaps in the future we will see the Security Fears Ministry, the Demographic Threat Ministry, the Non-Recognition of Israel Ministry, the World Is Against Us Ministry, the Chosen People Ministry, or the Ministry of Greater Israel. This is a ministry that embodies an ideological position; it says that the gravest danger facing Israel today is the Iranian threat and the Syrian-Iranian alliance with Hizbullah and Hamas. Fine, but standing up to this threat has always been the job of the Foreign Ministry, the Defence Ministry and the intelligence establishment. What need is there for a new ministry run by a man who has no experience in security affairs, unless you count his rumoured links to the Russian mafia, and is not distinguished by his penetrating strategic thought? This is a ministry for incitement, mobilization and conspiracy-mongering. It is a ministry made to win popularity in the Israeli street by beating the war drums against "the enemy."
Lieberman's entry to the government will weaken the Labour Party which, by agreeing to sit at the same table with him, will appear yet more opportunistic and keen to preserve its political positions. Any future internal party disagreement will be coloured by the stand taken when Lieberman joining the government. And after Labour is weakened, along with the old coalition, Lieberman may chose to leave the government at any time if in so doing he can bring about its fall. At that point he will become the star of the right.