Goodbye and good riddance to a direct election system

The abolition of the direct election system for prime minister is a great day for Israel's democracy that I'm sure history will consider the most important event of this political year.

Our fragile democracy must be forever indebted to the combined wisdom of the leaders of the new government — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres — who succeeded in bringing about the much-needed change at the last possible moment, before further fragmentation of the Knesset at the next elections. We must also thank two courageous politicians — Uzi Landau of Likud and Yossi Beilin of Labor — who continuously fought against direct election, even when they were on a collision course with the majority in their respective parties or with their leaders.

I have been strongly against the direct election system since the day it was presented to the Knesset more than 10 years ago and have published many articles and columns against its establishment, both in the Hebrew and English press. I must say that all my darkest predictions materialized in a quicker and more intensive scenario. I cannot find even one redeeming argument in support of that system, neither in theory nor in practice.

Instead of bringing more unity, honesty, integrity and stability to our political life, it caused the further deterioration of all the ills that existed in the old system. It weakened the big parties to a point of almost total destruction and elected two prime ministers who thought they were above the law and the Knesset. Altogether, it brought more instability to our parliamentary life and opened more opportunities for corruption and the buying and selling of votes. The lifespan of our governments became shorter and shorter, bringing us to a situation similar to that of unstable democracies such as Italy or France before Charles de Gaulle.

Most of the politicians who created this system — under the hysterical influence of some legal academics — did not understand the full meaning of what they created. Luckily, many of them woke up before it was too late and changed the system into a much better one. They succeeded in correcting not only the mistakes of the direct election system, but also many of the shortcomings of the earlier parliamentary system.

The new law that was passed last week clearly defines the roles of the legislative and the executive branches, giving the Knesset better tools to deal with political crises. It enables the smooth operation of the system, even if the prime minister enjoys only a very small majority.

He or she can now govern without fearing a weekly ambush in the form of a motion for a no-confidence vote. This disruptive obstruction can now be used only in rare cases, and only if supported by 61 Knesset ministers who must, at the same time, present an alternative premier.

The creators of the direct election system and many of our politicians did not understand the true role of opposition. It is to be the watchdog of the government, presenting alternatives without creating political havoc.

With this understanding and those important legislative innovations, we have finally entered the league of European democracies like Scandinavia and Germany that succeeded in establishing a well-balanced and stable equilibrium between the government and the parliament. While the parliament is the supreme source of authority, as a reflection of the will of the people, it still allows the executive arm to govern and execute its policies and programs.

These democracies strive to hold elections on time, once every four or five years, calling for earlier elections only in rare cases of ultimate necessity. They also have a viable mechanism of replacing prime ministers and governments without creating a prolonged political and social crisis.

With these changes, we are already assured of more political stability, even with the present composition of the Knesset. If the religious parties or the extreme right threaten Sharon, he can easily replace them with some of the parties that are now outside his coalition.

On the other hand, if Sharon tilts too much to the right, there can be a center-left-secular coalition of 62 that can present a successful no-confidence motion with an alternative prime minister, such as Peres. Thus the renewed system offers us the best chance for political stability based on moderate middle-of-the-road government that will continue to strive for peace.