The price of divorce

By: Michael Partem, Vice Chairman of the Movement for Quality Government

Government coalition agreements are somewhat akin to wedding contracts, in that they are a charter of rights and duties based on which the parties profess to enter into a long-term relationship. Unlike a Jewish marriage contract (ketuba), however, there is no fixed monetary price for divorce. Coalition agreements contain an array of promises but no price tag if a party decides to call it quits and in so doing brings down the government.

One can compare the current government of the State of Israel, its thirty-third, to a failed marriage, deteriorating in a downward spiral of bickering and mutual recrimination. It is plain to see that the four political parties that have, until very recently, cohabited in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet suffer from severe incompatibility issues. The common interest that held them together could not overcome the forces pulling them apart. Yet unlike in a failed marriage, the immediate price for this divorce will be borne by the public and not by the parties themselves.

The cost of this divorce is not just a matter of the election’s direct expense and the indirect cost to the economy of government inaction, but will also include the very real price that will have to be paid to the coalition partners in Israel’s next government, the 34th. In the past, this price was hidden from the public in secret coalition agreements. In one of the Movement for Quality Government’s very early court successes the Supreme Court put an end to the secrecy surrounding coalition agreements (Petition Number 1601/90 Shalit v. Peres). The court asserted a basic principle of democratic life: that the public must be exposed to a full and open discussion of the issues and processes by which a government is elected and formed. Chief Justice Meir Shemgar stated that “democratic government is built on a continual inclusion of the citizens in information on public life.”

Partem

Recently there have been disturbing reports of backroom deals between the Likud, the current prime minister and the ultra-Orthodox parties. If these reports turn out to be true then the price tag for a new government may have already been set. While there are valid reasons why preliminary negotiations and exploratory talks between the parties are done in private, the public has the right to know if any deals have been sealed. This is especially true during the run-up to elections.

Under Israel’s constitutional system there is no direct election of the executive. A citizen gets to cast one vote for the party of choice. In this vote he or she is forced to include calculations of party ideology, personal performance and the many combinations and permutations involved in forming a new coalition government. In theory one party could receive a majority and not need to form a coalition, but that has never happened.

There is a greater chance of finding life on a distant planet than one party forming a government in Israel. So if the party of choice has decided to get to into bed with another party or parties, the voter should be informed.

The right to full transparency in the coalition process is essential for an informed citizenry.

The publication of coalition agreements has two other distinct advantages. First, there is the knowledge on the part of the parties that their political deals will be subject to public scrutiny. Daylight will help spur the parties to make a greater effort in drafting agreements acceptable to voters. This should help eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, the often corrupt and expensive horse-trading that went on behind closed doors. Second, publication of coalition agreements will allow the voter to compare performance with promise and see how well their party has performed in terms of its early rhetoric. Anyone can today go to the Prime Minister’s Office website and read the coalition agreements to check and see how well their party has succeeded in promoting the agenda on which it entered into the government coalition.

If we must face new elections then let the parties vying for our votes remember that in this market the government package must be clearly labeled, with both the price and the ingredients prominently displayed.

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This post was also published in The Jerusalem Post

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