By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Politics and its limits


The two countries I know best are both immersed in political frenzy. In the United States it is the onset of the 2016 presidential campaign. In Israel it is sorting out the goodies and the claimants after last month’s election. Both are marked by hyperbolic claims and promises, which are not likely to produce more than tiny increments of what affects the future of each place.

The American presidential race may end up as a competition between two dynasties, with Jeb Bush against Hillary Clinton. So much for claims of being the most openly democratic country, where everyone can make it to the top. It’ll take a lot of money to get a major party nomination and then the big prize. Hillary has set her target at raising two billion dollars. The Republicans will not be far behind, if at all. Glitz, slogans, and platitudes are what we’ve heard so far from Hillary.

A critical article in the New York Times asks what she intends to offer? And why is she running? She is already headlined as a favorite to get her party’s nomination and a possible winner of the election. Yet it may not be all smiles and well programmed media stuff. Being a woman might help, but being an old woman might be a handicap. If elected, she’d be close to Reagan’s record as the oldest person to become president, Americans are likely to be reminded about his dementia, which became evident either soon after he left office, or while he was still serving. Husband Bill will be both an asset with some voters and a problem with others. And a problem for Hillary if his dicey heart gives out in mid-campaign, perhaps while he’s seen going after one of the shapelier aides.

Whoever wins will come up against a host of barriers to the enactment and implementation of what the voters are expecting. Entrenched politics have their supporters, and do not cave in easily to a new leader.

Congress and the bureaucracy are two sources of constraint, either opposing and modifying in a formal sense (Congress) or using the power of expert persuasion and a knowledge of existing law and regulation (the bureaucracy) to whittle down what gets passed or delay and dilute what is implemented

The economy is a major constraint, along with budget bureaucrats and central bankers inclined to hold off any major raid on the government treasury

In the case of foreign policy, the president is limited by all of the above, plus the actions of America’s clients and antagonists. Even a “pisspot little country” like Israel can throw a monkey wrench into a president’s desires or a president’s capacity to carry out what the White House defines as American policy. So much for Hillary, Jeb, and whoever else is promising Americans to make life a lot better. 

The leader of every other democracy faces equivalent limitations on personal power. No doubt the person at the top can nudge a limited number of issues in one direction or another, but not likely the full delivery of the promises voters will be hearing in the coming months.

Presidents and other heads of state may do great things in office, or commit grave errors that impact on their society, but they may not be the things featured in an election campaign. Think of George W. Bush’s responses to 9-11 in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the details of what Barack Obama is promoting with respect to Iran.

The United States, more than most other western democracies, suffers from considerable freedom available to state and local governments. All told, there are nearly 90,000 governmental units in the United States with some degree of autonomy. The claim is that this makes for greater democracy and home rule. Maybe. But it also provides an opportunity for nuttiness not controlled by higher levels of government.

Israel is following its own timetable. The election occurred on March 17. A week later the president gave Benyamin Netanyahu the task of forming a government. Bibi has four weeks, plus the possibility of a two-week extension to do the job.

Currently he and his party colleagues have been listening to what the likely partners want, and seeking to persuade flexibility in cases where there are two or more claimants for the same goodie. The ministry issue is not only who gets what important position, but what administrative components are passed from one ministry to the other. Moshe Kahlon demands not only the Finance Ministry, but control of local planning, usually associated with the Interior Ministry. He also demanded the chair of the Knesset Finance Committee. He claimed that the triad of positions would be necessary in order to deliver on his promises to reduce prices, reform banking, and deal with the supply of housing. 

Even with his hands on all the levers, assuming that happens, Kahlon will still have to cope with national and world economic conditions, the weight of Bank Israel, and some additional problematic local factors. Israeli consumers face a few large suppliers of food and other prominent consumer goods with near monopoly controls on prices. The housing market has been affected by contractors not willing to build at full capacity, and overseas Jews who are willing to pay high prices for apartments that remain empty most of the year.

Reports are that Kahlon may give up the demand for control of the Knesset Finance Committee, also prized by Torah Judaism for the sake of its Yeshivah boys, but is still insisting on local planning, against the insistence of SHAS leader Ariyeh Deri that he be given the Interior Ministry with its full complement of functions.

Deri’s claim is raising hackles. He has promised to use the Interior Ministry to assure sufficient resources for the school system associated with his party, but it’s just for such things that he served 22 months in prison.

Avigdor Lieberman has made a pitch for the death penalty against terrorists, and Naftali Bennett wants a veto on legislation having to do with the Jewish nature of Israel.

Against both of those claims, as well as Kahlon’s demands, Bibi and his party colleagues have hinted at turning toward Zionist Union and the prospect of a “National Unity” government. Reports are that talks are underway, with Zionist Union be offered a number of ministries in a Netanyahu government.

We’re in a process of political blather and a game of chicken. Will Bennett, Lieberman, and/or Kahlon risk a miserable few years in opposition? Or settle for less of what they say they want in exchange for the modest number of votes they would contribute to a coalition?

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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