With some fanfare (“promised and implemented”) the Israeli government decided to support legislation that will limit the term of an Israeli Prime Minister—any Prime Minister—to no more than eight years. Americans might think this is a good idea. They might think that finally, Israel is becoming more like America. Many Israelis might also think this is a good idea. They want Israel to be more like America. Yet, they are wrong. Israel is not becoming more like America. That is, unless what we mean by “being more like America” is being unserious about political processes.
The idea to have a term limit for Israel’s Prime Minister gained traction for one reason: Benjamin Netanyahu. His long reign was so frustrating to his rivals, they convinced themselves that a repeat of such an outcome must be prevented by legislation. This is silly for more than one reason, the first of which is that Bibi’s gone. Maybe not for good, but he’s gone for now. Namely, the system works. When the voters no longer wanted him they got rid of him. The insistence to pass the radical legislation looks like a fixation on an old, outdated cause. Moreover, to gain a majority for the legislation and make it legally viable, the legislators had to accept that the new law will have no retroactive implications. This means that Netanyahu can still serve for eight more years, starting tomorrow.
I called the law “radical” and you might ask, what’s radical about it? How can I call it radical when the U.S. has such term limits? To which my answer would be: Yes, to have a term limit in a parliamentary system is radical. Israel has a PM, supported by a coalition that could crumble at any time. There is no four-year term guaranteed, there’s no two-term limit. And if you look around, it is easy to identify other countries with parliamentary systems that do not have term limits. Germany’s Angela Merkel is ending a more-than-eight-years term. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher served more than eight years. In fact, many of the most illustrious leaders of parliamentary democracies served more than eight years. Think Trudeau in Canada. Think Pitt, or Blair, in Britain. Think Gandhi in India. Oh, and that long forgotten guy, Ben-Gurion. Him too.
Yes, the U.S. changed its constitution and limited its presidents to two terms. Had we wanted to be contrarians, we could wonder: was this a wise move, or just hysterical post-FDR aftershock? No president before FDR served more than two terms. No president after him served more than two terms. So we do not have any data or example with which to prove that a two-term limit produces better results than a one-term limit, a three-term limit, a fifteen-term limit or a no-term limit.
What justifies term limits in the eyes of its proponents? To prevent corruption, to prevent entrenchment of a certain ruling party and to infuse new people and ideas into the bloodstream of a country. Each of these arguments must overcome strong counterarguments. For example, certain studies of corruption in municipalities concluded that mayors do not tend to become more corrupt in their second or third term. The equation “more time in power” equals “more corruption” is a common cliché with little evidence backing it. It might be true for kings or dictators. But in democracies, a corrupt government is kicked out by the voters. Another example: New people could have new ideas, and that’s good. But they also have less experience and a propensity to make rookie mistakes, and that’s bad.
So Israel is making a significant constitutional change for no reason other than confusion and frustration. And it is making a significant change that isn’t going to hold. Why not? Because of Israel’s system. Unlike the U.S., Israel does not have a elected president. Unlike the U.S., Israel does not have a constitution. When the post-FDR shock ignited the process that ended with term limits, the Twenty-Second Amendment made it permanent. What happens in Israel is different: It will pass legislation that could be altered back with a simple majority. And guess who is likely to have the simple majority needed to reverse the new legislation? If you guessed right, it’d probably be the PM with the popularity to serve, well, more than eight years.
Something I wrote in Hebrew
As the value of the US Dollar came very close to three New Israel Shekels (NIS), Israelis started pondering the meaning and implications of this change in exchange rates:
Will the US Dollar drop below three Shekels? This is a childish question. There is no special importance to three shekels. A decrease in the value of the US Dollar from NIS3.2 to NIS3.1 is not fundamentally different from a decrease from NIS3.05 to NIS2.95. Still, this arbitrary threshold seems to have psychological significance. In life generally and economics in particular, the psychology of expectations plays a role that could have an impact on the real world. Should Israelis purchase US Dollars? Sell them? This is a decision by humans, influenced by the psychology of humans.
A week’s numbers
An important factor of social and economic stability is to have a citizenry that believes in the possibility of social mobility (whether true or false). Here’s what Israelis say about the connection between effort and success (survey of 1500 Israelis, themadad.com).
A reader’s response
Following my last week’s column (“When the Budget Passes, Bibi Goes. Really?”), Dinah sent a question: “Why don’t Likud leaders challenge Netanyahu in Primaries?” Short answer: because they will lose. (Longer answer: One leader, former Minister of Health Yuli Edelstein, said he’s going to challenge him.)
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.