Limiting prime ministers’ time in office might prove to be Netanyahu’s greatest legacy

Limiting prime ministers’ time in office might prove to be Netanyahu’s greatest legacy

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One of the never-ending debates in all electoral systems is whether the time in office of those in power should be limited, or it should be left to the people to make this decision. As long as voters are pleased with their leaders, why should constitutional arrangements interfere with their free will?
Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill justified limiting the time of officials in office, though he didn’t necessarily practice what he preached, as he observed, with his typical dry wit, that “after a time, civil servants tend to become no longer servants and no longer civil.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by Lord Acton in the 19th century, who said that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and that the constant need to appease the electorate would end in an excessive concentration of power and corruption.
America’s Founding Fathers were more optimistic about human nature, and the nature of their politicians, and chose not to limit the terms of presidents and senators, not so much because they believed that a lack of rotation in public office would not lead to abuses of power, but more because they trusted the judgment of the American people. Former US President Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued that “my confidence is that there will for a long time be virtue and good sense enough in our countrymen to correct abuses.”
The most recent evidence of a parliament expressing only qualified trust in the virtue of leaders seeking reelection indefinitely took place in the Israeli Knesset, which passed by a big majority the first reading of a bill that limits prime ministers to no more than eight years in office. Although, obviously, the name Benjamin Netanyahu was not mentioned in this legislation, his more than 15 years in power were written all over it.
This might not prevent him from returning to power, because even if the bill eventually becomes law it will not be applied retroactively. Nevertheless, the message sent by the Knesset was clear: Netanyahu’s dominance of Israeli politics, marked by populist chaos and a personality cult, and mired in three cases of corruption that are currently going through the courts, had much to do with him remaining way too long in the prime minister’s job.
There are clear benefits to limiting the tenure of elected officials in general, and even more so in a very volatile political system such as that of Israel. A law of this nature would thwart the excessive concentration of power in the hands of one person, which can threaten the very foundations of the democratic system.
As in any other democracy, the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances aim to guarantee that no branch of the government shall become too dominant. The experience of the Netanyahu era was such that the longer he remained in power, and the deeper he sank into his own personal quagmire of corruption investigations and eventual indictments, the more he abused his position in his attempts to influence the justice system and law enforcement agencies, and interfere in appointments that could affect the outcome of his trial.
Moreover, through his loyal, and mainly belligerent, lieutenants in the Knesset, he paralyzed the nation’s legislature and prevented it from being a constructive and efficient tool for overseeing the government’s activities, especially those of the prime minister himself.

Although Benjamin Netanyahu's name was not mentioned in the legislation, his more than 15 years in power were written all over it.

Yossi Mekelberg

Another lesson from the Netanyahu era is that the longer he was in power, the more he showed an obsessive determination never to relinquish his premiership and to delegitimize any contender for this position, not only from rival parties but also from within his own, behaving as if it was his by virtue of some divine law.
One of the signs of this gradual detachment from reality, and more significantly from all democratic principles, is that despite leaving office more than six months ago, Netanyahu still insists on being referred to as “prime minister” even though there is no such tradition in Israel of referring to former holders of the position with the title.
In his opportunist delusion he also constantly questions the legitimacy of the current government, although there is no basis, legal or otherwise, to substantiate his innuendo in the slightest. Had there been a law limiting the tenure of the prime minister, this would have never occurred and he would have most likely quit the Israeli political landscape altogether.
Like any other political organization, the state has an institutional memory and falls back on habits and inertia. One of the pillars of a democratic system is the mechanisms it creates for a smooth transition of power from one government to the next, but if such handovers of power do not happen with some regularity they become rusty, appearing almost irrelevant.
This is to the detriment of the country. Since a change of leaders is bound to happen eventually, it is for the good of the country that the system is accustomed to the process in a manner that ensures continuity. The new Israeli government entered office days after the last round of hostilities with the Palestinians came to an end, not to mention amid many other challenges. This was a test of a political system that had not experienced a change of power for well over a decade, with Netanyahu himself deliberately uncooperative and at times obstructive.
To be sure, limits on terms in office are more associated with presidential systems where there is a disproportionate amount of power concentrated in the hands of an individual, than with parliamentary systems. Hence the US in 1947 eventually officially adopted a tradition first set by George Washington, by introducing the 22nd Amendment to limit a president to no more than two terms in office. In France, a president may serve a maximum of two consecutive terms of five years each.
In parliamentary systems there is a strong sense that because a government and the person who leads it requires, by law, the approval of the parliament, this provides a good enough safeguard against authoritarian tendencies and, therefore, it is better to not interfere with the decisions taken freely by the electorate.
But this notion has been tested in recent years by Netanyahu and we have seen that a parliamentary system, especially under certain domestic and international conditions, can still be manipulated by a prime minister. The Knesset should therefore be congratulated for this initiative to limit the time in office of future Israeli prime ministers, and ensuring that only a special majority can change the legislation.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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