Israel: Presidential system?

Obama interferes in Israeli elections. Does he also use taxpayer money to pay for it?
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In July 2008, I was asked to draft a paper on presidential government for a small committee of distinguished academics including professor of law Uriel Reichman, president of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and a former member of the Knesset, Hebrew University professor of political scientist Yehezkel Dror, an Israel Prize winner, and Tel Aviv University professor of political scientist Gideon Doron. Alas, nothing came of this project. Too many politicians were wedded to the dysfunctional system of coalition cabinet government fragmented into five or more rival parties each with its own agenda and ambitions. But now that presidential government has been proposed by MK Danny Ayalon (Israel Beiteinu), it may be of interest to Mr. Ayalon and the public to reproduce the paper I drafted for the aforementioned committee.

Presidential Systems of Government: Introduction

A Presidential System is one where an Executive branch exists separately from the Legislature to which it is not accountable and which cannot in normal circumstances dismiss it. The President serves a term fixed by the constitution and can be removed only in extraordinary circumstances such as impeachment. (There is no practical way of removing PM Netanyahu from office despite his war-time incompetence vis-à-vis Hamas.

The separation of legislative and executive powers in a Presidential System may be incomplete. For example, the President may be able to veto legislation passed by the Legislature while the Legislature may override the veto by a supermajority.

The President’s cabinet is personally nominated by, and solely responsible to, the President, even though the nominations may require confirmation by the Legislature.

A semi-presidential system of government is one in which a prime minister and a president are both active participants in the day-to-day administration of the state. It differs from a parliamentary system in that it has a popularly elected Head of State, the President, who is more than a purely ceremonial figurehead. It differs from a presidential system in that the cabinet is responsible to the Legislature, which may force the cabinet to resign through a motion of no confidence.

How the powers are divided between president and prime minister can vary greatly between countries. In France, for example, the president is responsible for foreign policy and the prime minister for domestic policy,

Semi-presidential systems sometimes experience periods of “cohabitation,” when the president and the prime minister are elected separately, and often from rival parties. The same sort of situation occurs in the American Presidential system, when the President and the majority party in both houses of Congress are of different parties. This is called “grid lock.”

The Rationale for a Presidential System of Government: What Israel Can Learn from America’s Founding Fathers

Note: Although conditions in Israel differ very much from those that prevailed during the formation of the American Constitution, various principles articulated by the Framers of the Constitution are timeless. No less than British Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-1898) regarded America’s Constitutional Convention as the greatest assembly of statesmen the world has seen. It would be parochial to dismiss their wisdom as passé.

The Constitution. Could Israel use a constitution like this?

The US Constitution. Photo: National Archives of the United States

First, recall that the original thirteen American colonies were sovereign states, each having its own particular identity. You were a “Virginian” or a “Pennsylvanian,” not an “American.” This divisive state of affairs is comparable to the situation in Israel, where thirteen and (as much as 33) political parties fragment the nation. Whereas the American Founding Fathers had yet to forge a nation with a clear sense of American identity, so Israel has yet to forge a nation with a clear sense of Jewish identity. In fact, the theme of Washington’s “Farewell Address” was “national unity.” Unfortunately, if Israel is still far from achieving national unity it is not only because it lacks a Washington, but also because its system of multiparty cabinet government is not conducive to national unity. Recall what David Ben-Gurion said in his Memoirs: the parties that form a government in Israel do so, “not on the basis of a common program but merely to divide up the positions of influence and the national budget.”

National unity, a precondition of national security, is a paramount concern of any statesman. This is especially true of Israel given its ethnic divisions and ideological tensions on the one hand, and the existential threat posed by its Arab-Islamic enemies on the other. Israel must therefore replace its divisive and inept system of multiparty cabinet government—in effect, a plural Executive—with a unitary Executive, hence a Presidential system of government.

The most lucid and compelling defense of a unitary Executive was made by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 70. He begins by pointing out that “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.” By energy Hamilton does not mean power so much as intellectual energy, which springs from wisdom and self-confidence. (Henry Taylor says in The Statesman: “The energy of the statesman should be as purely as possible intellectual; it should be of that rare species which can be combined with equanimity.”) Hamilton also has in view the institutional prerequisites for the exercise of energy, the first of which is unity. (By the way, Jewish law opposes collective leadership, as may be seen in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 8a.) Here is how Hamilton justifies unity in the Executive:

That unity is conducive to energy will not be disputed. Decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch will generally characterize the proceedings of one man [far more so] than the proceedings of any greater number; and in proportion as the number is increased, these qualities will be diminished…. [This unity] can be destroyed in two ways: either by vesting the power in two or more ministers of equal dignity and authority; or by vesting it ostensibly in one man, subject, in whole or in part, to the control and cooperation of others, in the capacity of counselors.

Because a plural Executive inevitably gives rise to difference of opinion, there inevitably follows the danger of “personal animosity” among those composing the government. Such dissensions, says Hamilton,

lessen the respectability, weaken the authority, and distract the plans and operations of those whom they divide…. [T]hey impede or frustrate the most important measures of the government, in the most critical emergencies of the state. And what is still worse, they might split the community into the most violent and irreconcilable factions, adhering to the different individuals who composed the magistracy.

In Israel, the multiplicity of rival parties in the cabinet not only precludes coherent and resolute national policies; it also produces governments whose average duration is less than four years. In fact, the average term of a cabinet minister is even shorter! This unstable or transient state of affair makes it virtually impossible for the government to pursue consistent and long-term national policies.

It should also be emphasized that multiparty cabinet government opens the door to foreign manipulation of Israeli politics. This is an unmentioned consequence of Israel’s system of Proportional Representation where fixed party slates compete for Knesset seats in a single nationwide electoral district. Fixed party slates facilitate the rule of party machines headed by the party leader. Hence, it is sufficient for a foreign power or plutocrat to “buy” a party’s leader (perhaps by financing his election campaign) by “buying” his party—something virtually impossible when the members of his party represent geographic districts. (By the way, this is a most important reason for excluding legislators from the President’s cabinet.)

Turning to the method of nominating a President, this was the most protracted issue of the debates of the American Constitutional Convention. A dozen methods were considered until James Madison put the issue to rest by pointing out that the nomination of the President should not depend on any fixed or permanent institution of government, for the President would then be dependent on that institution, especially if he sought reelection. Such dependency would lead to political intrigue and undermine the President’s integrity.

For these and other reasons, the Founders designed the Electoral College system. Although this system never worked effectively after 1800, its underlying principles actually reveal the highest caliber of statesmanship. Under this system, a President would enter office without knowing who were his electors, since they would meet in their respective state capitals and ballot secretly for two candidates, at least one not from their own state. Given the lack of communications in those days, a President would enter office without the “political debts” that have long encumbered presidents since the ascendancy of nationally organized political parties, presidential primaries, massive fund-raising, and the omnipresent media. Hence, it behooves us to design a method of election that conduces to, rather than undermines, the independence and integrity of a president.

Of course, the president’s independence and integrity will also depend on the relationship between the Executive branch and the other branches of government. A strong Executive needs to be checked and balanced by a strong Legislature whose members derive their position not from party oligarchs or machines so much as from the voters in constituency elections. Also, the Supreme Court, in exercising judicial review, should not metamorphose into a policy-making body that encroaches on the Executive, especially in wartime. The variables involved in this separation of powers or system of checks and balances are numerous and subject to contingencies. (This is why political scientists refer to America’s “wartime” and “peacetime” Constitution. The former magnifies the power of the Executive branch, the latter the power of the Legislative branch.)

Returning to Hamilton, his analysis of the defects of a plural Executive is multifaceted. Since a plural Executive inevitably gives rise to differences of opinion, there inevitably follows dissensions among those composing the government. Such dissensions, he writes:

lessen the respectability, weaken the authority, and distract the plans and operations of those whom they divide…. [T]hey impede or frustrate the most important measures of the government, in the most critical emergencies of the state. And what is still worse, they might split the community into the most violent and irreconcilable factions, adhering to the different individuals who composed the magistracy.

Hamilton then turns to the psychological consequences of a plural Executive, that is, of how such an Executive arouses the egoism and pugnacity of human nature:

Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been proposed by those whom they dislike. But if they have been consulted, and have happened to disapprove, opposition then becomes, in their estimation, an indispensable duty of self-love. They seem to think themselves bound in honor, and by all the motives of personal infallibility, to defeat the success of what has been resolved upon contrary to their sentiments. Men of upright, benevolent tempers have too many opportunities of remarking, with horror, to what desperate lengths this disposition is sometimes carried, and how often the great interests of society are sacrificed to the vanity, to the conceit, and to the obstinacy of individuals, who … make their passions and caprices interesting to mankind.

These perceptive remarks describe the typical behavior of Israeli cabinets, whose ministers, as party leaders, feel obliged to exert their egos lest they lose credit among their party followers. Hamilton continues:

But one of the weightiest objections to a plurality in the Executive … is that it tends to conceal faults and destroy responsibility … It often becomes impossible, amidst mutual accusations, to determine on whom the blame or the punishment of a pernicious measure, or series of pernicious measures, ought really to fall. It is shifted from one to another with so much dexterity, and under such plausible appearances, that the public … is left in suspense about the real author. The circumstances which may have led to any national miscarriage or misfortune are sometimes so complicated where there are a number of actors who may have had different degrees and kinds of agency, though we may clearly see upon the whole that there has been mismanagement, yet it may be impracticable to pronounce to whose account the evil which may have been incurred is truly chargeable.

One can hardly better describe the confusion surrounding the Yom Kippur War and the question of who in the Golda Meir cabinet was most responsible for that disaster. The Second War in Lebanon is a more recent example of such confusion. But this confusion should be understood not only in terms of the ineptitude of a prime minister or of a defense minister, but also in terms of the system of multiparty cabinet government that propelled them to power.

Returning to Hamilton, after citing ancient and modern examples revealing the defects and dangers of a plural Executive, he concludes:

It is evident from these considerations that the plurality of the Executive tends to deprive the people of the two greatest securities they can have for the faithful exercise of any delegated power, first, the restraints of public opinion, which lose their efficacy, as on account of the division of the censure attendant on bad measures among a number, as on account of the uncertainty on whom it ought to fall; and, secondly, the opportunity of discovering with facility and clearness the misconduct of the persons they trust, in order either to their removal from office, or their actual punishment in cases which admit of it.

Is it possible, in this age of television, publicity, and lackluster political parties to design a method of electing the President that would be conducive to “energy” in the Executive as Hamilton understood that term? Unity in the Executive can be readily achieved by separation of powers qualified by legislative confirmation of presidential nomination of cabinet ministers. A more daunting task is to design a method of electing the President, one which, while convenient and democratic, does not impair the President’s independence and integrity.

The most convenient method is to have the President nominated by the Legislature and elected by the people. But nomination by the Legislature contradicts Madison’s dictum that the President should not be nominated by any fixed or permanent institution of government—and for reasons already stated. Is there a way to circumvent this dilemma or at least minimize the shortcomings of having the President nominated by the Legislature?

For purpose of illustration, consider Israel’s 120-member Knesset. Suppose twenty-four MKs are required to nominate a President, so that no more than five candidates can be nominated. (They may be nominated by a party or by a party coalition, but no party or party coalition can nominate more than one candidate.) If there are more than two nominees, the Knesset will ballot and the two candidates receiving the highest number of votes will be the nominees chosen to compete in a popular election for President.

Complications begin with an incumbent’s re-election. If re-election depends on the Knesset, this will lead to intrigue and undermine his integrity. There is, however, a solution to this dilemma, far-fetched though it may appear at first glance. The solution is to make an incumbent President automatically re-eligible for re-election! Consequently, he will not be dependent on the Knesset for a second term. The Knesset will then proceed to nominate two other presidential candidates who, together with the incumbent, will vie for the popular vote. If no candidate receives a majority, the two receiving the highest number of votes will compete in a run-off election.

Remarkably, Brazil offers a parallel solution to the re-nomination problem. Brazilian law requires parties to re-nominate their incumbent federal representatives should the latter so wish!

Regarding the President’s tenure, the present writer recommends a fixed four-year term. This precludes votes of no confidence which, in Israel, have never overturned a Labor- or Likud- or Kadima-led government. Also, the proposed President will not possess the power to dissolve parliament.

More complicated is the number of terms to which a President will be eligible. A three-term limit would be far more appropriate for Israel than the two-term limit now imposed on the President of the United States, which makes him a “lame duck” in his second term. If a talented person, say fifty years of age, were to become President and prove worthy, it would be absurd to preclude him from the presidency when he reaches the age of fifty-eight, and it would not even be democratic. Talent is exceedingly rare. Rarer still is the combination of talent and virtue required of statesmanship.

Let us recur to Hamilton, this time in Federalist No. 72, where he defends the indefinite re-eligibility of the President prescribed in the original U.S. Constitution. Re-eligibility, he says, is necessary to give a President “the inclination and the resolution to act his part well, and to the community time and leisure to observe the tendency of his measures, and thence to form an experimental estimate of their merits.” Stated another way, a President’s eligibility for re-election “is necessary to enable the people, when they see reason to approve of his conduct, to continue him in his station, in order to prolong the utility of his talents and virtue, and to secure to the government the advantage of permanency in a wise system of administration…”

Conversely, a constitutional limitation on the President’s re-eligibility, says Hamilton,

would deprive the community of the advantage of the experience gained by the chief magistrate in the exercise of his office. That experience is the parent of wisdom, is an adage the truth of which is recognized by the wisest as well as the simplest of mankind. What more desirable or more essential than this quality in the governors of nations? Where more desirable or more essential than in the first magistrate of a nation? Can it be wise to put this desirable and essential quality under the ban of the Constitution, and to declare that the moment it is attained, its possessor shall be compelled to abandon the station in which it was acquired, and to which it is adapted?

These are compelling arguments, and they are relevant to Israel. This country needs statesmen with vision, statesmen capable of pursuing long-term and comprehensive policies of national significance. Such policies require time and patience as well as fortitude to effect. If the Presidency is limited to two terms, the office will attract not men of vision but mediocrities and short-term pragmatists. A three-term limit seems reasonable.

Refuting Arguments Against Presidentialism

Let us now anticipate and refute various arguments against presidential vis-à-vis parliamentary government. Some political scientists contend that, given the President’s fixed term of office, the political process becomes broken into discontinuous, rigidly determined periods without the possibility of continuous readjustments as political, social, and economic events may require. No scientific array of evidence, however, is offered to substantiate this academic and largely impressionistic contention. One may argue that most governments under parliamentary systems run their allotted tenure of four years and are equally discontinuous.

Alternatively, presidentialism reduces the uncertainties and unpredictability inherent in parliamentary governments. Parliamentary systems frequently involve a large number of parties whose leaders and rank-and-file legislators often undergo changing loyalties and realignments. (Recall how 29 MKs hopped over to rival parties before the 1999 Knesset elections!) These parties can, at any time between elections, make basic policy changes and even change the head of the Executive, i.e., the Prime Minister. (Recall how Prime Minister Ariel Sharon abandoned the Likud and formed the Kadima Party—perhaps the only party in history that gained control of a supposedly democratic government without ever running in an election!) Israel, surrounded by hostile dictatorships, requires predictable executive power, hence Presidential Government.

Presidentialism also provides accountability and identifiability. The voter knows whom he or she is voting for and who will govern should this candidate win. This may also be true in parliamentary regimes consisting of only a few parties with highly visible leaders. But it is certainly not true in politically splintered Israel where no party has ever come close to winning a Knesset majority. In Israel the voter never knows which parties will form a governing coalition.

Critics of presidentialism also refer to the previously mentioned phenomenon of “grid-lock” which, like “cohabitation,” results when the legislature is dominated by a party other than that of the President. Studies indicate, however, that, “grid-lock” in the United States is very much a myth. Politicians of both major parties know that the public’s business must be done if they are to remain in office, so that compromise between President and Congress is the rule.

On the other hand, Israel’s current system of coalition cabinet government, which so often leads to paralysis, can hardly be deemed preferable to America’s presidential system, which has nurtured the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. Besides, one may well argue that “grid-lock” is less to be feared than the stagnation, if not tyranny, that may occur in a parliamentary system that gives a single party control of both the Executive and Legislative branches of government. The American system of checks and balances has its disadvantages, as does any human contrivance, but that system has been most conducive to liberty.

There is, however, one significant advantage of parliamentary systems: they often have a well-known shadow government, whereas a president-elect starts naming a cabinet only after his election. Unfortunately, this advantage of parliamentary systems does not apply to Israel, whose fragmented parliament yields a cabinet consisting of rival parties.

Alternatively, suppose presidential candidates were required to designate, during their election campaign, say five cabinet ministers—e.g., foreign affairs, defense, finance, education, and religion. Those designated would most likely be experienced individuals well known to the public. Although they would not constitute a shadow government, they could form the nucleus of a very solid cabinet. What is more, the public would know in advance the leading cabinet ministers. This would induce presidential candidates to choose the most worthy members of the community as cabinet colleagues. The cabinet would then consist of five ministers virtually elected by the people. Of course, they, along with other cabinet nominees, would require confirmation by the Legislature.

Finally, critics of presidential government point to the poor record of such systems in South America. But the political culture of South American countries is no more promising to parliamentary systems. John Quincy Adams predicted early in the nineteenth century that it might require two hundred years for republican government to take root in South America! But this, only in passing.


*An enlarged version of this paper will be found in the author’s book An American Political Scientist in Israel (Lexington Books, 2010), Chapter 10, which also provides a detailed proposal for a Constitution for the State of Israel.

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2 Responses to Israel: Presidential system?

  1. jangle says:

    Thank you for a fascinating article. I have just one request – I noticed links to a biased website, wikipedia, throughout your article. In the future could you please link to conservapedia.com articles, whenever possible? It is important to support fellow conservative media – in fact I came across this article through conservapedia, Much thanks.

    • Terry A. Hurlbut says:

      I’ll look in to encouraging Conservapedia to have its own articles on the subjects in question.

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