Friday, March 21, 2008

Israel`s Electoral Complex

From Azure Magazine, Winter 5768 / 2008, No. 31, by AMOTZ ASA-EL (very brief excerpts only - follow the link to the full article):

... the Israeli public’s faith in the integrity of its governmental institutions is declining rapidly..... Moreover, the abundance of excellent leadership elsewhere in Israel--in, for example, the business, technology, and science sectors--forces one to ask why it cannot be found where it is needed the most.

Some place their hopes in a change of leadership. Yet it is hardly that simple: The magnitude of the corruption and ineptitude currently being uncovered, its penetration into all levels of national and local government, and its chronic persistence even in the face of widespread public revulsion force us to look for explanations that transcend momentary circumstances.

...In fact, the root cause of Israel’s current political malaise is not moral or ideological, but structural: Namely, Israel’s unique electoral system.

Israel maintains the world’s most extreme model of the proportional electoral system, and the results are nothing short of disastrous. This system has been depleting Israel’s political energies for decades: It radicalized the territorial debate, debilitated the economy, obstructed long-term planning, derailed government action, distracted cabinets, diverted budgets, weakened prime ministers, destabilized governments, enabled anonymous and often incompetent people to achieve positions of great influence and responsibility, and blurred the distinctions between the executive and legislative branches of government. Perhaps most crucially, it has led talented, accomplished, moral, and charismatic people to abandon the political arena to the mediocre, unimaginative, and uncharismatic people who currently populate it. The electoral system’s contribution to Israel’s current crisis of leadership and governance is grave and possibly decisive. Now is the time, then, to probe its flaws and consider its replacement--before it is too late.

...Proportional representation ...PR....allocates power between political parties according to the percentage of overall votes they receive in a single, nationwide election. By contrast, under the plurality voting system, voters cast ballots for candidates running in district elections. The candidate who receives the most votes is declared the winner. This is known as the “first past the post” or “winner takes all” mechanism. In effect, it means that votes cast for losing candidates are simply discarded. The PR system, therefore, attempts to represent the public’s collective will with maximum accuracy, whereas the plurality system tries to ensure stability through decisive outcomes....

....while it honors the democratic principle of ideological diversity, the PR system’s low threshold percentage for election makes it far too easy for non-mainstream political parties, including radical movements, to enter parliament. The system then sustains their activity--however destabilizing--by paying their officials, giving them a public platform for their inflammatory rhetoric, and shielding them from legal repercussions by granting them parliamentary immunity. ....The result is power without responsibility.

In contrast, voters in a plurality system shun radicalism because they tend to base their political choices on practical considerations and local concerns rather than abstract ideology. Political parties operating under such a system are therefore compelled to field candidates who, despite leaning Right or Left, will tend towards the pragmatic Center. If they do not, they will not be able to command the kind of stable consensus that is a prerequisite for election under a plurality system.

Moreover, because PR relieves politicians of the need to court the majority, it inevitably gives rise to special-interest parties, whose members of parliament are “pledged to the consideration of one interest only.” Consequently, major national issues are neglected so as to make way for the narrow economic concerns of a small constituency. ...Moreover, large parties gradually become subservient to special-interest parties, first by placing special-interest representatives on their candidate lists, then by abandoning themselves to the devices of these parties’ contradictory concerns. Eventually, the large parties lose their unity and, therefore, their ability to lead effectively.....

....Damage to governance is particularly harsh, as PR first shrinks and ultimately destroys parliamentary majorities. Since any given election will produce extremely diverse results, the electorate never emerges with a clear, collective statement on the issues at hand. The morning after an election each party will claim that its programs express the will of the people, while in fact, the will of the people has not been expressed at all. In reality, once they are elected, lawmakers do as they please. Israel....The problems themselves are well known: The Knesset is chronically fragmented; governments change every two years on average and ministerial turnover occurs at a dizzying pace; infighting, corruption, nepotism, and patronage are commonplace; long-term policy schemes, such as the Wisconsin Plan for the labor markets, the Dovrat Reform of the school system, or the Electric Corporation’s de-monopolization are abruptly modified, obstructed, and sometimes derailed by newly arrived ministers. Moreover, Israeli ministers frequently lack managerial experience and are therefore often overbearing. They micromanage, and dole out appointments and pork-barrel allocations at the expense of the long-term planning that both their duty and the national interest demand.

Consequently, Jerusalem’s political corridors are seen as lacking the vision, charisma, responsibility, and accomplishment that have become commonplace in Tel Aviv’s corporate boardrooms. More ominously, voter turnout is steadily declining, reaching an all-time low of 63.2 percent in the last general election. ... Consequently, talented young leaders shun politics, and the ones who do enter politics are seldom leadership material. Witness the critical mass of Israeli politicians who are either former briefcase carriers for other politicians or children of prominent lawmakers--the so-called “princes.”

In a category of their own are Israel’s retired generals, whose unique place in Israeli politics is not only, as most people assume, a byproduct of the country’s ongoing military conflict with its neighbors. It is also a result of the proportional system’s deficiencies. Retired generals have been a permanent fixture in the Knesset for the past four decades because lackluster career politicians--the PR system’s “party men”--need them to create the impression that their lists are offering the charisma that they themselves lack. However, once admitted to the system, the generals, too, are soon conditioned to serve party bosses and forums, often by distributing patronage. Worse still, while the generals are frequently blessed with leadership skills, they are just as frequently politically clueless. Though well-informed on matters of national security, they are glaringly uninformed regarding fundamental domestic issues. In a district system, most of them would fail to be elected, because voters would expect them to discuss local concerns such as teachers’ salaries, health care, and electricity bills before regaling them with insights into the grand questions of war and peace.

Indeed, the basic reality of most Western democracies, in which political careers begin with, and depend on, constant dialogue with local voters, has yet to arrive in Israel. Local politicians--whether they are careerist technocrats or ex-generals--are not accountable to their voters, but to the few thousand members of their party’s central committee, or worse, to a single charismatic leader who handpicks the party list.

Worse still, the PR system has seriously impaired the Israeli government’s ability to tackle controversial but nonetheless vital issues....

....How did we come to this?
The Israeli electoral system was born in a moment of severe crisis. In October 1948, with the War of Independence still raging.... Any other system would demand much more complicated preparations and will be impossible to carry out within a short period of time.

... the foundations of Israel’s political system were improvised under abnormal conditions. With the fledgling Jewish state still fighting for its independence, the need to quickly consolidate its newfound sovereignty by electing its first parliament outweighed any concerns about the mechanics of Israel’s political system, and left no time even to consider the kind of exhaustive constitutional debates that accompanied the establishment of most other modern democracies.

....David Ben-Gurion ... attempted as early as October 1948 to pass a cabinet resolution in favor of plurality elections based on the British model. Ben-Gurion believed that PR created too many political parties, none of which would ever be large enough to constitute a majority of the Knesset, and which would be forced to share power in ways that would paralyze policymakers. Worse still, the system would nurture its own instability, since it allowed--and in fact encouraged--smaller parties to bring down the government in service of their own partisan interests. Though Ben-Gurion’s concerns would later prove to be prophetic, his proposed reform was flatly rejected by the cabinet’s religious members, who were convinced, with good reason, that they would lose political power and influence under a district-based system....

....It may take years for meaningful electoral reform to take shape, but ultimately Israel will have to undergo a thorough political overhaul, one in which at least half, and hopefully many more, of its lawmakers will be elected directly in their districts of residence. Under this system, the Knesset will be governed by a different spirit, one in which a critical mass of lawmakers will be dependent on, and thus loyal to, their local community, and not to a party machine.

....A directly elected Knesset will also raise the quality of leadership and governance in Israel, because a candidate’s election will depend on satisfying his local constituents and not on blind obedience to party superiors. Consequently, people who are more courageous, accomplished, and independent than today’s average Israeli politician will begin to gravitate toward the political arena. At the same time, legislative output itself will improve, as service in the Knesset will be seen as a mission rather than a patronage appointment, and will no longer be considered inferior to an executive position.

Since small parties and single-issue movements will find it much more difficult to win district elections...a reduction in the number of parties will increase government stability. Coalitions will comprise fewer parties and be easier to create, while cabinets will see less turnover and greater collaboration among ministers. So, too, as governments last longer and become less bloated with officials appointed for political reasons, they will become more capable of long-term planning. Finally, as the system gradually attracts better leaders and produces better governance, it will be met with greater voter turnouts and, most important, greater trust and respect from the general public.

These difficult but necessary changes demand a leader who is prepared to confront the powerful anti-reform lobby, much as the 1985 economic recovery plan demanded a confrontation with pro-union forces from the Left and economic populists from the Right. The crisis that the Israeli political system faces today is no less ominous than the catastrophe that faced the Israeli economy in the mid-1980s. It threatens the integrity, the strength, and the future of the state, ...Treating it will therefore take the same vision, resolve, and impartiality that Israel’s leaders displayed back then, and rarely display today. Yet now as then, it is nothing that cannot be done. It just takes leadership.

Amotz Asa-El, the former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post, is an adjunct fellow at the Shalem Center.

Monday, March 17, 2008

IRENA SENDLER - righteous gentile

From Richard's Creations, Portage, Michigan USA (A true story), by Gavriel Horan:

Irena Sendler, turned 97 years old in 2007, a Polish woman who saved 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust....
...Mrs. Sendler, code name "Jolanta," smuggled 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the last three months before its liquidation. She found a home for each child. Each was given a new name and a new identity .....
... Mrs. Sendler listed the name and new identity of every rescued child on thin cigarette papers or tissue paper. She hid the list in glass jars and buried them under an apple tree in her friend's backyard. Her hope was to reunite the children with their families after the war. Indeed, though most of their parents perished in the Warsaw Ghetto or in Treblinka, those children who had surviving relatives were returned to them after the war. Yet Irena Sendler sees herself as anything but a heroine. "I only did what was normal. I could have done more," she says. "This regret will follow me to my death."
Breaking the Silence
Though she received the Yad Vashem medal for the Righteous Among the Nations in 1965, Irena Sendler's story was virtually unknown. But in 1999 the silence was broken by some unlikely candidates: four Protestant high-school girls in rural Kansas....looking for a subject for the Kansas State National History Day competition...
... The girls compiled many details of Mrs. Sendler's life, which they eventually made into a short play, "Life in a Jar." The play has since been performed hundreds of times in the United States, Canada, and Poland, and has been broadcast over radio and television, publicizing the silent heroine to the world.
... Mrs. Sendler was a senior administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, which was in charge of soup kitchens.... From 1939-1942, she was involved in acquiring forged documents, registering many Jews under Christian names so they could receive these services; she listed them all as typhus and tuberculosis victims, to avoid any investigations.
It wasn't enough. Irena joined the Zegota, the Council for Aid to Jews, organized by the Polish underground resistance, operating out of London with the help of many British Jews. Obtaining a pass from the Warsaw Epidemic Control Department to enter the Warsaw Ghetto, she smuggled in food, medicine, and clothing. Over 450,000 Jews had been forced into the small 16-block area that was the Warsaw Ghetto; 5,000 were dying each month. Irena felt that her efforts were helping only to prolong the suffering, but doing nothing to save lives. She decided that the most that could be done was to try to save the children. "When the war started, all of Poland was drowning in a sea of blood. But most of all, it affected the Jewish nation. And within that nation, it was the children who suffered most. That's why we needed to give our hearts to them," Sendler said on ABC News.
In 1942, Mrs. Sendler, "Jolanta," was put in charge of the Children's Division of Zegota. She and her team of twenty-five organized to smuggle out as many children as possible from the Ghetto. .... Irena, herself a young mother, found it almost impossibly painful to have to persuade parents to part with their children, entrusting them to a non-Jewish stranger. The only thing that gave her strength to withstand this pain was the knowledge that there was no other hope for survival....... Fighting against time, "Jolanta," entered the Ghetto several times a day, wearing on her arm a yellow Star of David to show her solidarity, desperately trying to convince parents to let her take their children..... Small children were sedated to keep them from crying, then hidden inside sacks, boxes, body bags, or coffins. Older children who could pretend to be ill were taken out in ambulances. Many were smuggled through sewers or underground tunnels, or taken through an old courthouse or church next to the Ghetto. Outside the Ghetto walls, the children were given false names and documents. ....
....The Church was actively involved in much of Mrs. Sendler's work. However, she stresses that the goal was not to convert people to Catholicism, but rather to save lives. Each family had to promise to return the children to any surviving family members after the war. Unfortunately, this promise was not always kept. Mrs. Sendler spent years after the war, with the help of her lists, trying to track down missing children and reconnect family members.
Of the remaining orphans, some 400 were taken to Israel with Adolph Berman, a leader in Zegota. Many others chose to stay with their adopted parents. Despite Mrs. Sendler's efforts to trace them, some 400 to 500 children are still missing; presumably they either did not survive or they are living somewhere in Poland or elsewhere, perhaps unaware of their Jewish identity.
For two years, Jolanta's covert operations were successful. Then, in October 20, 1943, the Gestapo caught up with her. She was arrested, imprisoned in Warsaw's notorious Pawiak prison, and tortured. Her feet and legs were broken. She still needs crutches and a wheelchair as a result of those injuries, and still carries the scars of those beatings. She refused to betray any of her co-conspirators or to reveal the whereabouts of any of the children.
Jolanta was sentenced to death by firing squad, a sentence that she accepted with pride. But unbeknown to her, Zegota had bribed one of the German guards, who helped her to escape at the last moment....
...Due to the Communist regime's suppression of history and its anti-Semitism, few Poles were aware of Zegota's work, despite the unveiling of a plaque honoring the organization, in 1995, near the former Warsaw Ghetto. Mrs. Sendler continued her life, simply and quietly, continuing to work as a social worker ... until the discovery by the Kansas teenagers catapulted her into the public arena.
Irena Sendler was awarded the Order of White Eagle, Poland's highest distinction, in Warsaw, in 2003. This year, she was nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. At a special session in Poland's upper house of Parliament, President Lech Kaczynski announced the unanimous resolution to honor Mrs. Sendler for rescuing "the most defenseless victims of the Nazi ideology: the Jewish children." He referred to her as a "great heroine who can be justly named for the Nobel Peace Prize. She deserves great respect from our whole nation."
Today's Warsaw still bears testimony to Mrs. Sendler's lifesaving work. The corner store where children were hidden in the basement and the apple tree where the names of the children where buried still stand, all within sight of the German army barracks. Although the children had known her only as Jolanta, as her story became publicized, she began to receive calls from people who recognized her face from the photos: "I remember your face! You took me out of the Ghetto!"
In an interview earlier in 2007 with ABC News, Mrs. Sendler voiced some of her frustrations about how little anything has changed in the world: "After the Second World War it seemed that humanity understood something, and that nothing like that would happen again," Sendler said. "Humanity has understood nothing. Religious, tribal, national wars continue. The world continues to be in a sea of blood." But she added, "The world can be better, if there's love, tolerance, and humility."

Israel to hold largest-ever emergency drill

From THE JERUSALEM POST, Mar. 17, 2008, byYaakov Katz:

In the face of a possible escalation with Syria and Iran's efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon, parts of the country will shut down next month in what security officials say will be the largest emergency exercise in Israel's history.

The drill, which is being organized by the newly-established National Emergency Authority, will take place over five days starting on Sunday, April 6....Preparations for the April exercise are being overseen by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i.

On the first day of the drill, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will convene the cabinet in Jerusalem in response to an "enemy attack" and to decide on an Israeli response.

Based on a lesson learned in the Second Lebanon War and in preparation for Iranian nuclear bombs and enemy use of chemical and biological weapons, the Israel Police, IDF Home Front Command and other military branches, all of the country's hospitals, the Fire and Rescue Service, Magen David Adom and other rescue services will all participate in the drill....

...."This is the biggest exercise in Israel's history," said a high-ranking defense official involved in the planning, while stressing that the exercise was not being conducted due to intelligence that war was imminent but rather as part of the lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War.....

Judy Siegel contributed to this report.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Palestinian Forces - Police or Army??

From The Washington Post By Ellen Knickmeyer and Glenn Kessler*, Washington Post Foreign Service Saturday, March 15, 2008:

MUWAQQAR, Jordan -- A U.S.-funded program to train and equip Palestinian security forces is mired in ...differences between Israelis and the Americans over what military capabilities those forces should have once deployed in the territories.

..... Because of Israeli concerns, the group of more than 1,000 Palestinian trainees has not been outfitted with pledged body armor or light-armored personnel carriers. ....

...In unveiling his 2003 blueprint for Middle East peace, President Bush said building an effective Palestinian security force was essential to achieving a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
Touring the region last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the goal is to create "a professional and capable Palestinian security force" in part to counter Hamas, the armed Palestinian faction that controls the Gaza Strip and does not recognize Israel.

The forces being trained here in a desert camp one hour from Jordan's capital, Amman, are under the Palestinian Authority, run by...Fatah....

...U.S. contract workers and Jordanian security forces are training about 600 members of the Fatah-dominated National Security Forces, or NSF, in a 16-week course. About 425 members of the elite presidential guard, which answers to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, are undergoing eight weeks of training....

...But doubts in Israel and in the U.S. Congress about the loyalties of Abbas's forces have slowed the arrival of the program's funding.....

...The Israeli government has insisted that the Palestinian security forces be trained and equipped as a police force rather than an army that could threaten the Jewish state......

...Israeli officials have blocked delivery of body armor to Palestinian forces of a grade capable of stopping rounds from the M-16 assault rifles used by Israeli troops...."You never know when these things are going to be used against you," Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry, said of armor and weapons....

*Kessler reported from Washington, the Middle East and Europe. Correspondent Griff Witte in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Serious falling-out between Israel’s Barak and Washington

From DEBKAfile, March 15, 2008, 5:01 PM (GMT+02:00):

...Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the three US generals, who act as US envoys for the Israel-Palestinian peace track have accused Israel’s defense minister Ehud Barak of sabotaging Rice’s Middle East policy objectives. This accusation was first raised by Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

In protest against what he considered these officials’ anti-Israel positions, Barak absented himself from a meeting Friday, March 14, in Jerusalem with US Gen. William Fraser and Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad. Instead, he sent Amos Gilead, senior political adviser at the defense ministry....

...The defense minister complained that Gen. Keith Dayton, one of the three US envoys, leveled harsh criticism against him personally and Israel’s defense community in general at a gathering of US consular staff serving in Israel....

...Barak is reported by DEBKAfile’s military sources to have angrily rejected the US general’s charges ...

.... Those military sources also noted that Gen. Dayton had still not accomplished his mission to establish an effective Palestinian anti-terror force for the Ramallah government. That appears to be at the bottom of the controversy.