“Governance” has become the buzzword for members of Israel’s Knesset when trying to explain to the public the basis of recent legislation. It seems strengthening governance is lawmakers’ main goal these days; according to them, and probably everybody else, the Israeli government has a governance problem. Policy stalemate has, unfortunately, become the norm, and there is no shortage of examples that prove Israel has a governance deficit.
According to MK Ayelet Shaked, the root of this problem is found in the system itself – the overbearing and activist judiciary that won’t let the government govern nor allow the legislators to legislate. This is reflected in bills such as “The Override Law,” which would allow a simple majority of 61 MKs to overturn High Court annulments. It is also evident in the recent”Legal Advisor Law,” which proposes changing the current way government legal advisors are appointed, turning it into a political appointment rather than by tender (allegedly to help Ministers govern without pesky annoyances such as legal advisors telling them what they’re doing is at times illegal). This imbalance, according to some MKs, leads to what can be seen as a situation wherein an elitist minority determines for the majority what is right and what is wrong by preventing the government from doing its job as the people’s elected representatives.
One might find this to be a legitimate claim, for when it comes to governance and policymaking, checks and balances can become quite an annoyance. But if this is the case, the question we should be asking then is: after we decide to get rid of these so-called gatekeepers, whose whole purpose is to limit the power of the government to prevent abuses, will we then finally find the governance we are so eagerly looking to find? Probably not.
Israel is saturated with many controversial issues involving governance failures, many with no solution on the horizon. For instance, no strategic plan or vision regarding the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians has been seen in years; a security fence has been built but not finished; Gaza is crumbling yet no policy has been made to prevent the next war or alleviate the Strip’s horrible humanitarian condition. Moreover, all issues regarding religion and state are not even topics of debate for fear opening up these discussions will bring down the government. No one is dealing with the dire relations between Israel and the Jewish diaspora, the Bedouin community’s problems, or even the location in which next year’s Eurovision Contest should take place. The list goes on, and the common denominator between them all is that it’s not the judicial gatekeeper stopping the government from making decisions on these complicated issues, but those that govern and their lack of leadership.
Last week’s resignations of Ministers Ayelet Shaked, Miri Regev, and David Azoulai from the Ministerial Committee on Holy Places to avoid working on a plan that would allot a dedicated egalitarian prayer space for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall is an example of the noted leadership deficiency. The saga of the Kotel agreement began in 2016 when the government authorized an egalitarian prayer space only to later freeze the deal under the pressure of the ultra-orthodox parties. The Ministerial Committee on Holy Places chaired by MK Miri Regev with MK Ayelet Shaked was assigned the task of facilitating a compromise, one that would avoid Supreme Court involvement.
The resignations of these MKs from the committee predictably succeeded in stifling the Kotel agreement. The strategy of the MKs here seemed to be to avoid at all costs dealing with an issue of national importance so as to refrain from any confrontation with the Ultra-Orthodox community. This turned the unpopular decision over to the Supreme Court, pushing it into the judiciary’s purview to decide and take on the public criticism. According to Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, such a strategy has been used multiple times before. As she puts it, the court is often coerced to decide on sensitive issues that the authorities turn over in their direction. Hiyot claims that in these cases, where one of the state authorities drags its feet in making a decision, the court ends up having to determine on the matter all while the same person who refrained from making the decision places the responsibility of the act on the High Court and calls out in “grieving cries over the loss of governance” (as if the High Court intentionally forced its way into the debate).
But who can really blame these state representatives? The issues are many and as controversial as they come. For an aspiring MK, blaming the system is always easier than actually making an unpopular but necessary decision. Perhaps the current obsession Israeli politicians have with the issue of governance is rooted not in an imbalance between the checks that supposedly prevent them from getting anything done but rather in their inability to make hard decisions that might compromise their chances of reelection. Under such circumstances, finding an easy scapegoat to blame for their stalemate policymaking would seem like the smart thing to do even if democracy is the price. There are many barriers that prevent politicians from governing, but here the biggest obstacle appears to be the politicians’ own desire on whether or not to take a stand – thus failing to become the real leaders Israel so desperately needs.