- Executive Governance in Israel
Like a number of other countries, Israel is a democracy whose citizens have a limited opportunity to define public policy. Government officials are answerable to the people. They may be guided on a daily basis by the latest public opinion polls, but between elections it is the officials who interpret the polls, take account of other conditions near and far, and arrange among themselves the major lines and the details of government activity.
Which officials, and how they achieve and maintain their leadership, are the key questions for those concerned with the guidance of democracies. Arian, Nachmias, and Amir identify the “executive” as the ascendant center of power in Israel and elsewhere. The term is useful, but its amorphous nature is one of the issues in this small book. The executive certainly includes the head of government and principal collaborators. It also extends into the layers of the bureaucracy that have a role in defining the key lines of government policy. It is not easy to draw the line between policy making and policy implementation. Some years ago Michael Lipsky taught us to be alert to policy making by “street level bureaucrats.” Functionaries in Israeli bureaucracies have provoked political crises by refusing to honor economic deals worked out by nominal superiors, by finding one reason after another not to register an individual as a Jew, or deciding about the housing of Ethiopian immigrants and the assignment of their children to schools. Bureaucrats may not exercise the ultimate authority once individual cases get onto the wider political agenda. But even then they are influential, and “ultimate authority” is elusive in modern government.
Arian, Nachmias, and Amir concentrate on the role of Israeli prime ministers. They consider their dominance and dependence on the parliament (Knesset), other ministers, political parties, and a sampling of prominent non-elected authorities (attorney general, head of the Bank of Israel, and the state comptroller). At several points they consider Israel’s experiment with the direct election of the prime minister. This hybrid of parliamentary and presidential government selected Benyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon before the Knesset voted to return to a more conventional parliamentary arrangement. [End Page 176]
The authors describe the secret dealings of prime ministers and nuances of power sharing in three prominent cases: making peace with Egypt in 1977, economic reforms after a period of hyper-inflation in 1984, and the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993.
The analytic features of the book are less satisfying than its description of prime ministerial politics. An introductory chapter argues for the importance of government structure by reference to several prominent authors and institutional arrangements in France, Finland, Weimar Germany, the United States and Israel. The pages devoted to this exercise are not enough to carry the case that the formal rules considered are worth the energy that goes into inventing, enacting, and explaining their influence.
The authors make the point that there is restraint within the executive, but they avoid examining one of the most powerful—if not the most powerful—of those restraints in the Israeli setting. The Finance Ministry is arguably a rival of the prime minister, especially in domestic policy. The authors tell how one functionary in the Finance Ministry—the Civil Service Commissioner—has stifled key appointments wanted by the prime minister and his political allies. Even more prominent, but not dealt with here, is the quasi-independent budget department of the Finance Ministry in trimming decisions seemingly made by the Knesset and members of the government; and the role of the ministry’s official for salaries. This person not only affects the take-home pay of wage earners who work for government ministries and numerous other public sector bodies, but can exercise a veto in negotiations between large private sectors employers and their workers.
The general point of increasing executive dominance may actually be inaccurate in the Israeli case. The country came on the scene late in the game of executive ascendance. It began as a...