With fanfare (“promised and implemented”), the Israeli government has decided to support legislation that will limit the term of an Israeli prime minister – any prime minister – to a maximum of eight years. Americans might think this is a good idea. They might think that in the end Israel is 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 no more like America. That is, unless what we mean by “being more like America” isn’t serious about political processes.
The idea of having a term limit for the Israeli prime minister has gained traction for one reason: Benjamin Netanyahu. His long reign was so frustrating for his rivals, they convinced themselves that a repetition of such an outcome must be prevented by legislation. It’s silly for more than one reason, the first being that Bibi is 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 The insistence on passing sweeping legislation feels like a fixation on an old, outdated cause. Moreover, to get a majority for the legislation and make it legally viable, lawmakers had to accept that the new law will not have retroactive implications. This means that Netanyahu can still serve for eight more years, starting tomorrow.
I called the law “radical” and you might ask yourself, how radical is it? What can I call it radical when the United States has such term limits? To which my answer would be: Yes, having a term limit in a parliamentary system is radical. Israel has a prime minister, backed by a coalition that could collapse at any time. There is no guaranteed four-year term, there is no two-term limit. And if you look around, it’s easy to identify other countries with parliamentary systems that have no term limits. Germany’s Angela Merkel ends a term of more than eight years. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher served over eight years. In fact, many of the most illustrious leaders of parliamentary democracies have served more than eight years. Think Trudeau in Canada. Think of Pitt or Blair in Britain. Think of Gandhi in India. Oh, and that long forgotten guy, Ben Gurion. Him too.
Yes, the United States has changed its constitution and limited its presidents to two terms. If we had wanted to go against the grain, we might ask ourselves: was this a wise move, or just a hysterical post-FDR line? No president before FDR has served more than two terms. No president after him has served more than two terms. We therefore have no data or example 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 limit without a term.
What justifies the limitation of mandates in the eyes of his supporters? Prevent corruption, prevent the entrenchment of a certain party in power and breathe new people and ideas into the blood of a country. Each of these arguments must overcome strong counter-arguments. For example, some studies on corruption in municipalities have found that mayors do not tend to become more corrupt during their second or third term. The equation “more time in power” equates to “more corruption” is a common cliché with little evidence to back it up. This could be true for kings or dictators. But in democracies, a corrupt government is kicked out by voters. Another example: new people can have new ideas, and that’s good. But they also have less experience and a propensity for making rookie mistakes, and that’s bad.
So Israel is making a significant constitutional change for no other reason than confusion and frustration. And he’s making a big change that’s not going to hold up. Why not? Because of Israel’s system. Unlike the United States, Israel does not have an elected president. Unlike the United States, Israel does not have a constitution. When the post-FDR shock triggered the process that ended with term limits, the Twenty-Second Amendment made it permanent. What is happening in Israel is different: it will pass legislation that could be changed by simple majority. And guess who is likely to have the simple majority needed to overturn the new legislation? If you guessed correctly, it would probably be the prime minister with the popularity to serve, well, over eight years.
Something i wrote in hebrew
Like the value of the American dollar came very close to three New Israeli Shekels (NIS), Israelis began to think about the meaning and implications of this exchange rate change:
Will the US dollar fall below three shekels? It’s a childish question. There is no particular importance to three shekels. A decrease in the value of the US dollar from NIS 3.2 to NIS 3.1 is not fundamentally different from a decrease from NIS 3.05 to NIS 2.95. Yet this arbitrary threshold appears to have psychological significance. In life in general and in economics in particular, the psychology of expectations plays a role that could impact the real world. Should Israelis Buy US Dollars? Sell them? It is a decision of humans, influenced by human psychology.
The digits of a week
An important factor in social and economic stability is having a population that believes in the possibility of social mobility (whether true or false). Here’s what the Israelis are saying about the link between effort and success (survey of 1,500 Israelis, themadad.com).
A reader’s response
Following my column last week (“When the budget passes, Bibi leaves. Really?”), Dinah sent a question: “Why don’t the Likud leaders challenge Netanyahu in the primaries? Short answer: because they are going to lose. (Longer answer: One leader, former Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, said he was going to challenge him.)
Shmuel Rosner is a senior political writer. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.