Opinion | Term limits won’t help with stability

Ariel Kahana
Ariel Kahana (Via JNS.org)

By Ariel Kahana

What do Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, Tony Blair and Angela Merkel have in common? They’re all leaders who have gone down in the history of the Western world, and who served as leaders for much longer than eight years. And they aren’t the only ones.

Last month, Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved an eight-year term limit for Israel’s future prime ministers. But the history of democracies includes a long list of outstanding figures who spent much longer than that in their leadership roles. What reason is there to use the force of law to stop a talented person from continuing to serve as prime minister?

The people of Israel know from experience at the municipal level that public leaders can hold office for many years without it affecting their ability or contribution. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, the late Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, former Karmiel Mayor Adi Eldar, Netanya Mayor Miriam Feirberg, Ma’ale Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel and Haim Bibas in Modi’in — all served for much longer than eight years. Some of them served for 20. Only good came of it.

On the national level, by contrast, history shows us that Israeli prime ministers serve for a very short time — too short. In an era that requires long-term planning — very long-term — Naftali Bennett is the 13th Israeli prime minister since 1948. This means that each prime minister has served an average of 5.6 years. If we put aside David Ben-Gurion and Benjamin Netanyahu, who together spent 27 years as prime minister, the average term in office drops to four years.

So why is it so urgent to put an artificial eight-year term limit in place?

Even before the political crisis of the last two years, the governments of Israel didn’t tend to last. Imposing term limits will only destabilize them further, at a time when we need stability. Israel hasn’t even been rescued from its political maelstrom — the government is still rotational and enjoys only a single-seat majority. When everything hangs on a thread, why strike another blow?

What’s more, experience shows that changes to the rules of government in Israel lead to unexpected, negative results. In the 1990s, a law was passed mandating the direct election of the prime minister in a separate ballot. At the time, it was presented as a revelation that would save the government from chronic instability. The result was the exact opposite. The representative parliamentary system suffered a major blow, from which it still hasn’t recovered.

The frequent changes to the minimum electoral threshold and the number of cabinet ministers also haven’t proven themselves. Knesset after Knesset has been forced to change what its predecessor decided. It’s obvious that the same thing will happen with this law, too, if there is ever a popular prime minister in Israel who is appreciated by the coalition. If so, what have we achieved?

Israel’s system of governance does need a change of norms. The country needs a government that works for the people, and not only for its own survival. But only a collective decision by all political players to adopt fair rules — and not pass dangerous laws — will lead to the stability we long for.

Ariel Kahana is a diplomatic correspondent for Israel Hayom. This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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