The Corner

Long Goodbye in Israel

Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has finally announced that he will resign. This long overdue action will take place in September, when his party meets to choose a new leader. He won’t run again. It’s a shame that he feels the need to linger that long.

It is a testament to how badly Israel’s political system is organized that there was no mechanism along the lines of a no-confidence vote to chase him from office when he did such a bad job with the war in Lebanon two summers ago. Presiding over Israel’s first out and out failed military action (yes, there were some good results, but not enough), should have been a career ender then and there. Failing that, the scandal of his having taken large amounts of money ($150,000) from an American Jewish businessman should have ended his none too impressive administration. That he was still in office to make a deal this month with Hezbollah that involved exchanging two dead bodies for many live terrorists — including the very ones Hezbollah most wanted, and over which they originally took the actions that started the 2006 war — is shameful. Israel does not have the luxury of affording weak leaders who make deals with enemies because they need political support at home or abroad. A leader who is charged with negotiating a peace process must be able to do so from strength. Good thing then that the current process will have to wait for the next government.

It remains to be seen what will happen to Olmert’s (Likud) offshoot party, Kadima. Tzipi Livni, who, as foreign minister has been less impressive than one might have hoped, is a leading contender to replace Olmert as party leader and PM , as is a somewhat more hawkish minister, Shaul Mofaz. Only if the new leader cannot assemble a governing coalition from among Israel’s many small parties, each with their highly specific interests, will there be a new general election. If Kadima’s new leader does successfully put together a government, there won’t be a general election until 2010.

The problem with the current system, of course, is that too many politicians in too many smaller, or simply out of office parties, (including Labor), have a stake in keeping a version of the current government going. The fact that, whatever the outcome of most elections, major parties have to bring in leaders from minor parties to build coalitions, leads to a situation where career politicians have too much self-interest in maintaining any status quo that gives them power regardless of how the national interest is being served. This particular form of democracy problematically insulates the rulers from the will of the people for long stretches of time.

Israel has now obtained clear results from a bunch of recent political experiments. The watching world has learned what happens when you make a good will gesture and hand your enemies various cities and regions with nothing expected of them in return. We have learned how responsibly Palestinians behave when they are given the right to self-government. And we have learned that new and worse existential threats to Israel’s very existence can arise as older ones fade. Given these newly clarified realities, it would seem especially important for the people to express their views, in a general election, on which direction the country should take militarily and politically, vis-s-vis the neighbors. How frustrating to have a system that impedes that process — and no incentives to change it.

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