The last Camel's Nose Blog post of 2012 comes as news of the fiscal cliff has broken in Washington. No vote is scheduled tonight in an embarrassing failure for a Congress torn by what appears to be partisan interests and endemic inefficacy. This outcome is highly unfortunate and unworthy of the people American lawmakers serve.
Israel's government too has seen its share of embarrassment over the past few days. At a meeting of Israeli ambassadors, President Peres called President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas a "partner for peace" by way of criticizing the way Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had conducted the Ministry's affairs. This led to more partisan statements on both sides. Today, Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely openly opposed a two-state solution, forcing Prime Minister Netanyahu to reiterate his support over the objection of a member of his own party. While Netanyahu is expected to sail to victory in Israel's elections on January 22, deep dissatisfaction remains in Israeli society over the direction of its foreign policy (see just one example from today's Haaretz).
In both the US and Israeli cases, analysts have been quick to blame the partisanship of actors for these embarrassments. While some blame is rightfully reserved for these actors, structural limitations act on both governments as well. Scholars of American politics (for example, these guys) can speak with more authority than this blogger to the way the U.S. Congress is a multi-dimensional policy space where agreement hard to create. For its part, the government of Israel suffers from structural problems of its own. These problems create the endemic shortsightedness of Israel's rational leaders. Long-term planning is good for Israel but foolish for politicians in the current government system.
Israel was designed as a dominant party system but is now a multi-party system. The Mapai party dominated Israeli politics until 1977, when the Likud party won a sweeping victory. Now, Israel's parliament is more ideologically multi-faceted and therefore more unstable. This means that every decision a leader makes has a profound impact on the state of the governing coalition.
This is because Israel's legislators are also its executors. While in the U.S. the executive branch's separation from the legislative branch allows it to act quickly without risk of immediate political retribution from the public, Israel's "executive" is a security cabinet comprised of Knesset ministers and headed by the Prime Minister. This means that immediate parliamentary concerns play into every security decision the state makes. If President Obama were risking a change in Senate leadership from Democratic to GOP every time he made a security decision, it would restrict the time horizon of his foreign policy options to a more short-term focus. This is the status quo for most decision-makers in Israel.
Two notable exceptions are members of the Israeli Supreme Court and the Israel Defense Forces, a point Anshel Pfeffer reiterates in today's Haaretz. Yesterday, the Supreme Court overturned a politically-motivaed ban on an Arab Knesset member's candidacy in the upcoming elections, for which it drew criticism. For its part, the Israel Defense Forces play such a vital political role in Israel precisely because their mission success requires understanding long-term as well as short-term threats to Israel. However, in single-handedly conveying the importance of political foresight, the IDF fills a political vacuum which siphons resources from its more pressing threats and blurs the civil-military distinction in Israel even more than it is otherwise blurred.
While blaming Bibi and Lieberman for some of Israel's more questionable foreign policy decisions is to some extent warranted, a real change of direction will require modifying Israel's governing institutions. Israel has made such institutional changes in the past. For example, in 1996 Israelis voted for Prime Minister on a separate ballot (the practice was later switched back to the current single ballot system in 2001). Ultimately, those who decide Israeli foreign policy are rational politicians who will do what they must to remain in power. Israel's institutions should therefore better insulate these politicians from immediate political retribution, freeing them to take a longer term perspective on the long road to a secure Israel which lies ahead in the new year.