Israel: Parliamentary Riffraff – Uri Avnery

Parliamentary Riffraff 

Uri Avnery

WHEN I first entered the Knesset, I was shocked by the low standard of its debates. Speeches were full of clichés, platitudes and party slogans, the intellectual content was almost nil.

That was 52 years ago. Among the members were David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Levi Eshkol and several others of their kind.

Today, looking back, that Knesset looks like an Olympus, compared to the present composition of that non-august body.

AN INTELLIGENT debate in today’s Knesset would be as out of place as a Pater Noster [Our Father] in a Synagogue.   

Let’s face it, the present Knesset is full of what I would call parliamentary riffraff. Men and women I would not drink a cup of coffee with. Some of them look and behave like walking jokes. One is suspected of owning a bordello in Eastern Europe. Several would be rejected out of hand by any self-respecting private employer.

These people are now engaged in an unprecedented competition of outrageous “private” bills – bills submitted to Knesset vote not by the government, but by individual members. I have already mentioned some of these bills recently – like the bill to recognize Israel as the “National Home of the Jewish People” – and they multiply by the week. They do not attract any special attention, because the bills introduced by the government are hardly more sensible.

The question necessarily arises: how did these people get elected in the first place?

In the old parties, such as the Likud and the Zionist Camp (a.k.a. the Labor Party), there are primaries. These are internal elections, in which the party members select their representatives. For example, the head of the workers’ committee of a large public enterprise got all the employees and their families registered in the Likud, and they got him on the party list for the general elections. Now he is a minister.

Newer “parties” dispense with all this nonsense. The party founder personally selects the members of the party list, at his or her pleasure. The members are totally dependent. If they displease the leader, they are simply kicked out at the next election and replaced by more obedient lackeys.

THE ISRAELI system allows any group of citizens to set up an election list. If they pass the electoral threshold, they enter the Knesset.

In the first few elections, the threshold was 1%. That’s how I got elected three times. Since then, the threshold has been raised and now stands at 3.25% of the valid votes.

Naturally, I was a great supporter of the original system. It has, indeed, some outstanding advantages. The Israeli public has many divisions – Jews and Arabs, Western Jews and Eastern Jews, new immigrants and old-timers, religious (of several kinds) and secular, rich and poor, and more. The system allows all of these to be represented. The prime minister and the government are elected by the Knesset. Since no party has ever achieved a majority in elections, governments are always based on coalitions, which provide some checks and balances.

At some stage, the law was changed and the Prime Minister was elected directly. The public quickly became disillusioned and the old system was reinstated.

Now, seeing the riffraff that have entered the Knesset, I am changing my opinion. Obviously, something in the existing system is extremely wrong.

OF COURSE, there is no perfect election system. Adolf Hitler came to power in a democratic system. All kinds of odious leaders were elected democratically. Lately, Donald Trump, an unlikely candidate, was elected.

There are many different election systems in the world. They are the results of history and circumstances. Different peoples have different characters and preferences.

The British system, one of the oldest, is very conservative. No place for new parties or erratic personalities. Each district elects one member, winner takes all. Political minorities have no chance. Parliament was a club of gentlemen, and to some extent still is (if one counts gentlewomen).

The US system, much younger, is even more problematic. The constitution was written by gentlemen. They had just gotten rid of the British king, so they put in his place a quasi-king called president, who reigns supreme. Members of both houses of parliament are elected by constituencies.

Since the founders did not trust the people too much, they instituted a club of gentlemen as a kind of filter. This is called the Electoral College, and just now they elected (again) a president who did not obtain the majority of the votes.

The Germans, having learned their lesson, invented a more complicated system. Half of the members of parliament are elected in constituencies, the other half on country-wide lists. This means that the one half are directly responsible to their voters, but that political minorities also have a chance of being elected.

IF I were asked to write a constitution for Israel (we have none) what would I choose? (No need for panic. According to my calculations, there is about a one trillion to one chance for this to happen.)

The main questions are:

  1. Will members of parliament be chosen in constituencies or by country-wide lists?
  2. Will the chief executive be elected by the general public or by parliament?

Each answer has its pros and cons. It is a decision about what is more important under the existing circumstances in each country.

I was very impressed by the recent elections in France. The president was elected in a direct nation-wide vote – but with an incredibly important and wise institution: the Second Round.

In a normal election, people first vote emotionally. They may be angry with somebody, and want to express their feelings. Also, they want to vote for the person they like, whatever his or her chances. So you have several winners, and the final winner may be somebody who has got only a minority of the votes.

The second round repairs all these faults. After the first round, people have time to think rationally. Among the presidential candidates who have a chance to win, who is the closest to me (or the lesser evil)? In the end, one candidate necessarily gets a majority.

The same applies to the candidates to the Assemblée Nationale, the parliament. They are elected in constituencies, but if no one gets a majority at the first try, there is a second round there, too.

This may impede the arrival of newcomers, but lo and behold – the election of Francois Macron shows that even in this system an almost complete newcomer can become president.

Sure, an expert can probably find faults in this system, too, but it seems reasonably good.

OVER THE years I have visited several parliaments. Most of their members left me singularly unimpressed.

No parliament is composed of philosophers. You need a lot of ambition; cunning and other unseemly traits to become a member. (Myself excluded.)

I grew up admiring the USA senate. Until I visited that institution and was introduced on the floor to several members. It was a terrible disappointment. Several of them I spoke with about the Middle East obviously had no idea what they were talking about, though they were considered experts. Some were, frankly, pompous asses. (Pompous Asses are a category well represented in every parliament).

I learned that the real business of the Senate is conducted behind the scenes by the consultants and advisors of the senators, who are far more intelligent and informed, and that the role of the members themselves is to look good, collect money and make highfalutin speeches.

TV IS changing the picture (literally) everywhere.

TV cannot show party programs, so programs are obsolete. TV cannot show political parties, so parties are disappearing in many places, including Israel. TV shows faces, so the faces of individuals count. That explains why good-looking politicians in Israel create new parties and appoint the Knesset members, including the riffraff (some of them also good-looking), who would never be elected in a direct constituency vote.

When Adlai Stevenson ran for the presidency, he was told “Don’t worry, every thinking person will vote for you.”

“But I need a majority,” Stevenson famously replied.

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  • Clyde Duncan  On 05/22/2017 at 11:09 am

    The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, their power of forgetting is enormous.

    In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want them to understand by your slogan. As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain the material offered.

    Trump treated the American people as if they were one entity, because individuals are rational, think for themselves, and are concerned about their own well-being; whereas groups are unintelligent and easily persuaded.

    Sigmund Freud stated that groups tend to have the characteristics of “weakness of intellectual ability ,… lack of emotional restraint ,… incapacity for moderation and delay, [and] the inclination to exceed every limit in the expression of emotion.”

    Freud went on to say that groups “show an unmistakable picture of a regression of mental activity to an earlier stage such as … children” do. Trump uses this understanding of groups to strategically manipulate the American people.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 05/26/2017 at 11:20 am

    The Visitation


    Uri Avnery

    THANK GOD for Oren Hazan.

    Without him, this would have been an exceedingly dull visit.

    Israel’s cabinet ministers were lined up in the blazing sun at the foot of the airplane stairs for the official reception of President Donald Trump.

    It was very hot, there was no shade, dark suits for men were obligatory. Just awful.

    Many cabinet ministers did not want to attend. The Prime Minister had to compel them with dire threats.

    But lo and behold, when Trump descended from the presidential plane, there was an endless line of receivers. Not only all the cabinet ministers were lined up, but also a large number of infiltrators. It was too late to remove them.

    The most prominent among them was Oren Hazan. A simple first-term Member of the Knesset, with an acknowledged gift for vulgarity, he infiltrated the row of cabinet ministers. When President Trump approached his outstretched hand, Hazan produced his cellphone and started to take pictures of himself with the President, who, taken by surprise, cooperated sheepishly.

    Within seconds, the photo was all over the world and on many websites. It seems to have made little impression in United States of America itself. But Hazan was proud. It boosted his image even more than the recent court case, where it was found that there was no proof that he provided prostitutes to clients of his casino in Bulgaria.

    It was as if somebody was out to prove my contention of last week, that the present Knesset was full of “parliamentary riffraff”. Oren Hazan fits that description admirably.

    THERE WERE two Donald Trumps this week. One of them was touring the Middle East, being feted everywhere. The second was in Washington, where he was battered from all sides, denounced for incompetence and even threatened with impeachment in the future.

    Against the background of his troubles at home, Trump’s Arabian Nights were fantastic.

    His first stop was Saudi Arabia. The desert kingdom put forward its best face. The royal family, consisting of a few hundred princes (princesses do not count) looked like the realization of all of Trump’s secret dreams. He was received like a gift from Allah. Even Melania, demure and silent as usual, was allowed to be present (and that in a kingdom in which women are not allowed to drive a car.)

    As usual among eastern potentates, gifts were exchanged. The gift for Trump was a 110 billion arms deal that will provide jobs for multitudes of American workers, as well as investment in American enterprises.

    After his short stay, including a meeting with a large group of Arab rulers, Trump came away with tremendous enthusiasm for everything Arab.

    After a two hour flight, he was in a completely different world: Israel.

    SAUDI ARABIA and Israel have no common border. Though at one point – by the Gulf of Aqaba – only a few miles of Jordanian territory separate them, the two states could just as well exist on different planets.

    Contrary to the romance of the desert kingdom, where hunting hawks are prized, horses are admired and women are kept behind closed doors, Israel is a very prosaic place. Trump quickly learned just how prosaic.

    Before the airport ceremony, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had a hard time convincing his cabinet to come to the airport at all. It was a very warm day, Ben Gurion airport is an especially hot place, and wearing a heavy, dark business suit is a nightmare for Israelis.

    But in the end, the honour of attending was overwhelming. Not only did all cabinet ministers attend, but quite a number of ordinary (in both senses) parliamentarians and the like infiltrated the receiving line, which must have looked endless to the esteemed guest. Hazan was just one of many, though the most colourful.

    They did not just want to shake hands. Every one of them had something very important to convey. So poor Donald had to listen politely to each and every one of them reciting his historic remark, mostly about the sanctity of eternal Jerusalem.

    The Minister of Police had an urgent news item for Trump: there had just been a terror attack in Tel Aviv. It appeared later, that it was an ordinary road traffic accident. Well, a police minister cannot always be well informed.

    (My humble advice: on such hot days, please erect an air-conditioned tent at the airport.)

    A WORD about The Ladies.

    I presume that in her marriage contract, Melania Trump undertook to be graceful and silent on such occasions. Along the lines: look beautiful and shut up.

    So she stands aloof, slim, statuesque, her profile to the cameras.

    Sarah Netanyahu is the very opposite. She is not quite as sleek as Melania, and she certainly does not shut up. On the contrary, she does not stop talking. She seems to have a compulsive desire to be the center of attention in every scene.

    When a microphone succeeded in capturing a snatch of her small talk, it was about painting the walls of the official residence in anticipation of this visit. Not very highbrow.

    I don’t think that it is wise for Sarah’le to stand next to an international beauty queen like Melania. (Just a thought.)

    IT ALL reminded me of a book I read ages go. The first British colonial District Officer in Jerusalem, almost a hundred years ago, wrote his memoirs.

    The British entered Palestine and soon issued the Balfour Declaration, which promised the Jews a national home in the country. Even if the Declaration was a pretext for grabbing Palestine for the British Empire, the British were indeed imbued with a love for this country. They were also quite friendly to the Jews.

    Not for long. The colonial officers came, met Jews and Arabs, and fell in love with the Arabs. Hosting guests is a part of Arab culture, a long-standing tradition. The British loved the Arab aristocracy.

    They were much less enamored with the Zionist functionaries, mostly from Eastern Europe, who never ceased to demand and complain. They talked too much. They argued. No beautiful horses. No hawks. No noble manners.

    By the end of British rule, very few British administrators were ardent Jew-lovers.

    AS FOR the political content of Trump’s visit, it was a contest of lies. Trump is a good liar. But no match for Netanyahu.

    Trump spoke endlessly about Peace. Being quite ignorant of the issues, he may even have meant it. At least he put the word back on the table, after Israelis of almost all shades had erased it from their vocabulary. Israelis, even peaceniks, prefer now to speak of “separation” (which, to my mind, is opposed to the spirit of peace.)

    Netanyahu loves peace, but there are things he loves more – annexation, for example. And settlements.

    In one of his addresses, a sentence was hidden that, it seems, nobody noticed but me. He said that “security” in the country – meaning the right to use armed force from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River – will be exclusively in the hands of Israel. This, in simple words, means an eternal occupation, reducing the Palestinian entity to some kind of Bantustan.

    Trump did not appear to notice. How could he be expected to?

    PEACE IS not just a word. It is a political situation. Sometimes it is also a state of mind.

    Trump came to Israel with the impression that the Saudi princes had just offered him a deal – Israel will free Palestine, Sunni Arabs and Israelis will become one happy family, they will fight together against bad old Shiite Iran. Wonderful.

    Only Netanyahu does not dream of freeing Palestine. He does not really give a damn about far-away Iran. He wants to hold on to East Jerusalem, to the West Bank and, indirectly, to the Gaza Strip.

    So Trump went home, happy and satisfied. And in a few days, all of this will be forgotten.

    And we will have to solve our problems ourselves.

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