Life of an Israeli Government: Nasty, Brutish and Short

03/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Tuesday, Israelis will elect a new parliament and replace an administration that lasted less than three years. It saw a war in Lebanon, a conviction of a justice minister for forcibly kissing a soldier (immediately before entering a cabinet meeting that authorized the offensive), a resignation of a minister of defense over the conduct of the war, an indictment of a finance minister for theft (involving cash-filled envelopes), and several different criminal investigations against the prime minister himself. The early elections were initiated when the new minister of defense demanded the resignation of the prime minister, after which they jointly led Israel in the bloody operation in Gaza.

Worse yet, by Israeli standards, this was a stable, well-run administration.

The overriding mood on Israeli streets these days is one of cynicism. None of the candidates generates great enthusiasm and none is expected to make much headway on the myriad of problems the country faces, foreign and domestic. The least hope, unfortunately, is offered by the clear frontrunner, Binyamin Netanyahu; even if the other pieces of the regional puzzle were to be forced into place, a Netanyahu government would be unlikely to embrace any serious diplomatic initiative. Yet the frustrating inability of Israel to stay out of the news for long is due not merely to hawkish administrations or a near-impossible region. The lack of strategic leadership is also the product of a broken political system.

A case in point is Netanyahu himself. We know what he might be like as prime minister since he was ousted from that office once before, in 1999, in a record-breaking landslide. This record lasted only two years, however, before his successor, current defense minister Ehud Barak, lost by an even greater margin. That two failed prime ministers should be running again - along with the honest but uninspiring foreign minister Tzipi Livni - is testament to a dysfunctional political system.

"Early" elections have been the rule in the past decade and a half. Forming and sustaining an Israeli coalition is a bewildering art of human relations, algebraic wizardry, and Machiavellian maneuvering. The Knesset, to which parties - not candidates - are elected in proportion to their national vote share, consists of no less than a dozen factions, which tend to procreate and multiply by the end of a term. Were Netanyahu, forced by strong U.S. pressure, to go along with a "dovish" initiative, he would almost certainly face right-wing defections from his coalition and even within his own Likud faction.

Today, the best and the brightest in Israel shun politics and the able people who do enter the fray find a system in which the average tenure of a minister is less than a year and a half. A minister, in other words, can expect to oversee the implementation of no more than one budget. No initiative, from a peace deal to a highway overpass, is likely to come to fruition within a term. This would be a reckless way to manage a small scale firm; it is an absurd way to try to run a country this complex.

The problem would seem relatively simple. While political cultures are hard to change, political institutions can be tweaked to produce more stable dynamics and the trade-offs of electoral systems are relatively well understood. Electoral reforms have been implemented elsewhere - notably in Japan and Italy - but Israel suffers from a peculiar malady: it has tried reform unsuccessfully before. Those of us, in Israel and abroad, who hope for any kind of progress in the future, should hope Israel tries reform again.

Viewed from abroad, Israeli policy often seems mired in tough strategic calculations and a difficult reality. Though the reality is certainly difficult, strategy is often simply absent. As Kissinger famously quipped, "Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic political system." Unfortunately, before issues of war and peace can be resolved effectively, Israel may have to tend to the mundane mechanics of electoral rules.

In the meantime, Tuesday's outcome is likely to make prospects of a more peaceful Middle East even gloomier; the next Israeli administration's term will probably be nasty and brutish. The good news: it will likely be short as well.