Political reshuffling fosters disaster for Jewish state

Israel's current election imbroglio goes far beyond the expectations of the drafters of Israel's new election law. In certain ways, our current political situation is very similar to America's current election fiasco, simultaneously unprecedented and precedent setting.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak's decision to resign and then to nominate himself as the new Labor candidate is a political move few would ever have imagined, let alone implement. Couple that with Benjamin Netanyahu's re-entry into politics, as a private citizen, after his embarrassing failure as prime minister and you have two very strange and improbable political scenarios.

Israeli law is not only unclear as to how to proceed; it is also, in response to many of the dilemmas, nonexistent.

The big issue is whether Netanyahu can run for prime minister because he is not currently a member of the Knesset. While the answer seemed to be no, the Knesset decided otherwise on Wednesday, giving preliminary approval to a bill that would allow the former prime minister to run.

The bill, which amends Israel's election laws, would allow any citizen to run for prime minister in a special election. It must pass three more votes in the Knesset before it becomes law.

But nothing is simple in Israel. The new election law attempts to keep the parliamentary system in place by assuring that in the event of a change of premier, the next choice will come only from within the Knesset. That eliminates as potential candidates those who just gather the 50,000 signatures necessary to present themselves to the election board 47 days before the election. This law also preserves the power of the Knesset in the checks and balances system, ensuring that the prime minister will be the head of a party list in the Knesset.

The fact is that the writers of the law never foresaw the eventuality in which a leader would step down and then present himself as a candidate again, independent of Knesset elections, as Barak is doing. That was unfortunate. The law's writers did foresee the possibility that the head of state would resign for health reasons or personal embarrassment and scandal, but certainly, they never planned for a former prime minister who would endeavor to immediately run again.

Another issue still unconsidered in the law, which is challenging us, is the funding and financing of political campaigns for special elections for prime minister exclusively. No law exists on this question. And no law exists to cover the question of smaller political parties that wish to endorse a candidate and campaign for their own interests. In this case, those parties are not entitled to public-coffer campaign funding. They are not even allowed to raise their own money for the purposes of campaigning.

On the one hand, because Netanyahu is not a member of the Knesset and so does not legally represent a political party, he has no limitation on the private funds he can use to propel his message and himself into the public eye. As is well known, money is not everything in a campaign but it helps. But only if you can run. For Netanyahu, the other hand is that, because he is no longer a member of the cabinet, he was forbidden to run for this office, even with direct elections for the post.

As it now stands, the fact that Knesset members, as politicians, are trying to change the election system in order to allow a specific person to win is nothing short of irresponsible. In a democracy, one must use the system, not change it at every whim when it doesn't meet your immediate needs. There is little doubt that the laws for direct election must be improved, but one cannot throw these presently existing laws out or change them on the eve of an election just to pander to a particular issue or candidate. Using the American system as a point of reference, that would be tantamount to changing the electors in Florida to accommodate a Republican legislature.

Not to worry, here in Israel there is little challenge to the democratic process. I do think, however, that most members of Knesset would always prefer not to fight for their parties in primaries and then in national elections. They risk the loss of their own personal legislature seats as well as the possibility that their party may lose, rather than gain, seats in the next Knesset. But this time, in a tangled web of personal interests and the interests of democracy, Knesset members hopefully will choose to agree on early elections for the Knesset alongside the race for prime minister.

In fact, that is the step Netanyahu favors. At a meeting of the Likud Central Committee Tuesday, Netanyahu said he would prefer if the Knesset would vote to disband itself, clearing the way for general elections,

Under that scenario, Netanyahu would re-enter politics through his party. He would fight for control of the party and be eligible to run for prime minister. Barak will be forced to concentrate not only on his own re-election, but also on the future success of his party within the Knesset.

The public elects members to the Knesset on the assumption that they will act in the best interest of the country and its citizens. Should they act otherwise, the people are powerless until the next cabinet election.

If there is no new Knesset election, the newly elected prime minister will simply return to exactly the same position as today. That would mean either Barak returning with the same Knesset or Netanyahu inheriting the same Knesset.

And that would be disastrous for the Israeli legislature, for the prime minister and for all of Israel.