Friday, January 10, 2003

Corruption Disruption

It’s election season in Israel. And the campaigns are getting ugly.

Last night, the Prime Minister held an emergency press conference on TV. The idea was for him to explain that he’d done nothing wrong in accepting a $1.5 million loan from an old friend in South Africa. Well, that was the idea.

Instead, he belligerently attacked the purported politicking of his opponents in the Labor Party, so much so that, in a dramatic move, the Chairman of the Central Elections Committee actually pulled the broadcast off the air, calling it pure unadulterated propaganda in violation of the election laws.

Was this real life or an episode of The West Wing?

In the midst of all the excitement, I had a disturbing thought: could all this talk of corruption and bribe-taking wind up getting in the way of the really important stuff: there’s a war going on and people are trying to kill us, remember? I’m not taking sides here. If it were wide scale corruption in the Labor Party with the Likud gloating over it, I’d be just as peeved.

Now, maybe I’ve got my priorities all wrong. People shouldn’t vote for corrupt politicians, regardless of the bigger picture. I mean, what’s the story with this college drop-out waitress who landed herself a safe spot on the Likud list? Or the postal worker who couldn’t even get a promotion? Are these suitable representatives for our nation in a time of crisis? So maybe this is a good thing.

But my fear is, however important these issues are, while the politicians are fighting to the finish over who took money from whom, people are going to get blown up because we’re not focusing where we should be. Distraction can be deadly, and I’m not sure besieged Israel has the luxury of wallowing in scandal.

Of course, this same argument has been used to our detriment over the years: messed up systems never get fixed, people figure they don’t have to act decently to each other because there are more important issues to deal with.

But there must be a way to fight corruption and terror at the same time. Now here’s a thought: if enough people become sufficiently outraged by this current scandal, maybe it will generate a groundswell of support for a complete overhaul in the electoral system?

One that works this time.

For those of you who missed the 1990s in Israel, somewhere around ten years ago, the Knesset voted to allow for the direct election of the Prime Minister. Previously, the head of the party that received the highest number of votes would become Prime Minister.

But as for the actual members of Knesset, this list was determined not by the public in an open primary, but by smoky backroom party committees. It’s pretty easy to see how the temptation to buy votes can seep in.

The problem with the direct election of the Prime Minister was that it gave us a revolving door parade of heads of state, none of who ever lasted out their full term. Small parties held the bigger ones hostage and we became more fractured than before. The law was repealed this year and now we’re back to the old system.

What we really need, though, is something like what we North American immigrants grew up with: true local representation. Allow me to vote for someone who has to answer to me; someone who lives in my neighborhood, who drives the same potholed streets I do, who sits in the same shuls I do.

I’m not saying this person shouldn’t put national priorities up front and center. I hope he or she will. But I would much rather vote for a person, not just a party, and especially one I might bump into at Pizza Sababa.

This never came to be in the past in part because it was assumed that minority ethnic or religious groups who are not concentrated in a particular location would never be able to secure appropriate representation. But the country has become much more geographically polarized in recent years and populations aren’t mixing the way they once did. The representative of Karmiel for example, would almost certainly be a Russian-speaker given that city’s overwhelming majority of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.

Not surprisingly, immigrants party Yisrael B’Aliyah has proposed just such a change in its party platform, although they take a gradual approach – only half of the Knesset would be elected by direct representation in the first stage. Still, there's hope.

In the meantime, we’re still in the thick of the current system scandals. Thankfully, voting is just three weeks away. Then it will be all over (for now) and we can get back to the less dramatic stories of staying alive, fighting terror and stocking up on smallpox vaccine.

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