Commentary Magazine


Topic: Yoram Ettinger

What Brown’s Election Should Teach Israel

Former Israeli ambassador Yoram Ettinger notes that Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts offers an important lesson for Israelis: that American democracy revolves “around constituents and not around the President, Congress, or political parties.” To Americans, that doubtless seems obvious. But since Israel’s electoral system is not constituency-based, it’s a point often missed by Israeli leaders — with negative consequences for Israel’s foreign policy.

Israel is virtually the only Western democracy that still elects its legislature via closed nationwide lists. Israelis vote for a party, not a candidate, so general election voters have no say over which individuals occupy their party’s Knesset seats. This means they also have no way to punish individual legislators for unpopular positions or poor performance: As long as a Knesset member satisfies his party bosses, he can count on a “safe seat” next election, meaning a slot high enough on the party list to keep him in the Knesset even if the party loses seats.

Consequently, prime ministers have enormous power over rank-and-file MKs, far greater than what U.S. presidents enjoy. A president has no power to get a congressman reelected; that decision lies solely with the congressman’s constituents. But prime ministers have considerable power to get an MK reelected. Though all three major Israeli parties currently choose their Knesset slates via nationwide primaries, these slates are so riddled with “reserved seats” that a premier’s ability to shape his party’s list remains enormous — especially if he maintains good relations with “vote contractors” (key local activists) who can persuade large numbers of primary voters to vote a pre-approved list.

All this causes Israeli premiers to overestimate the U.S. president’s power. And this often leads them to sacrifice Israeli interests to the president’s desires, for the sake of maintaining good relations with Israel’s only ally. What they fail to understand is that reasonable relations can be maintained even without kowtowing to the president’s every whim, because even in the foreign-policy realm, where his power is extensive, he still needs Congress. And he cannot just order congressmen to fall in line. Thus as long as support for Israel remains strong among the American people, and hence in Congress, there are limits beyond which even the most hostile president won’t go.

This understanding is particularly important because even the friendliest presidents generally adopt less pro-Israel positions than either the Congress or the American people desire. Thus, for instance, Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but every president has utilized waivers to postpone the move.

Having lived in the U.S., current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu largely understands this. But most Israeli premiers don’t. Thus in their dealings with Israeli leaders, one of the most important services American Jewish leaders could perform is explaining how the American system truly works — and how to leverage the American people’s strong support for standing up to a hostile president.

Former Israeli ambassador Yoram Ettinger notes that Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts offers an important lesson for Israelis: that American democracy revolves “around constituents and not around the President, Congress, or political parties.” To Americans, that doubtless seems obvious. But since Israel’s electoral system is not constituency-based, it’s a point often missed by Israeli leaders — with negative consequences for Israel’s foreign policy.

Israel is virtually the only Western democracy that still elects its legislature via closed nationwide lists. Israelis vote for a party, not a candidate, so general election voters have no say over which individuals occupy their party’s Knesset seats. This means they also have no way to punish individual legislators for unpopular positions or poor performance: As long as a Knesset member satisfies his party bosses, he can count on a “safe seat” next election, meaning a slot high enough on the party list to keep him in the Knesset even if the party loses seats.

Consequently, prime ministers have enormous power over rank-and-file MKs, far greater than what U.S. presidents enjoy. A president has no power to get a congressman reelected; that decision lies solely with the congressman’s constituents. But prime ministers have considerable power to get an MK reelected. Though all three major Israeli parties currently choose their Knesset slates via nationwide primaries, these slates are so riddled with “reserved seats” that a premier’s ability to shape his party’s list remains enormous — especially if he maintains good relations with “vote contractors” (key local activists) who can persuade large numbers of primary voters to vote a pre-approved list.

All this causes Israeli premiers to overestimate the U.S. president’s power. And this often leads them to sacrifice Israeli interests to the president’s desires, for the sake of maintaining good relations with Israel’s only ally. What they fail to understand is that reasonable relations can be maintained even without kowtowing to the president’s every whim, because even in the foreign-policy realm, where his power is extensive, he still needs Congress. And he cannot just order congressmen to fall in line. Thus as long as support for Israel remains strong among the American people, and hence in Congress, there are limits beyond which even the most hostile president won’t go.

This understanding is particularly important because even the friendliest presidents generally adopt less pro-Israel positions than either the Congress or the American people desire. Thus, for instance, Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but every president has utilized waivers to postpone the move.

Having lived in the U.S., current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu largely understands this. But most Israeli premiers don’t. Thus in their dealings with Israeli leaders, one of the most important services American Jewish leaders could perform is explaining how the American system truly works — and how to leverage the American people’s strong support for standing up to a hostile president.

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