Two democracies, two paths to transition

Two democracies, two paths to transition

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Speaking in the House of Commons in 1947, Winston Churchill observed that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

It is worth pondering Churchill’s observation in light of what is occurring in both the United States and Israel. In both democratic countries, the governments are going through a transition of sorts, by virtue of their recent elections. Even without a change at the top — with Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu still in power — one is struck by the challenges and frustrations of transition.

For President Obama, his second-term transition is most evident in the new faces that will now be seen around the Cabinet table and the White House. His second-term team will reflect two major differences from the first. Obama does not need to consider how his policies and achievements will affect his reelection prospects; rather, he can focus entirely on his policy goals. He can pick a group that will help him win the most fights with Congress and within the international community. Such a group is not difficult to find, but much more complicated to make work. The president has no leverage over any appointees in this term and only they will control their political ambitions.

Obama’s team is in formation, with one confirmed appointment, John Kerry at State, and three designates: Jack Lew at Treasury, Chuck Hagel at Defense, and John Brennan at the CIA. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have given notice, with more departures expected to come shortly. Most of the departures do not reflect policy shifts but rather personal desires, and many of the incoming appointees probably will reflect similar policy directions.

In the White House, second-term staff changes tend to be generated by the president’s defined operational style and much less so by outside considerations. Obama also has a modus operandi which he developed during his first term, and now can fit the parts to his team much more effectively than four years ago.

By contrast, Benjamin Netanyahu’s transition appears to be almost entirely political, with substantive issues forming the heart of the government formulation debate. The Israeli parliamentary system elevates political horse-trading to a critical art. Ministerial portfolios are merely the bargaining chips that will identify the various winners and losers who form the coalition.

For Netanyahu’s government to function, he must cobble together a coalition from among a group of strong-minded, independent-thinking party leaders — all of whom want to be prime minister themselves. These coalition partners will receive not only ministries, but concessions from the coalition builder — the prime minister — to satisfy their own rank-and-file. Unlike American Cabinet members, who follow the policy directives dictated largely by the White House, Israeli Cabinet members agree to serve only after the head of government agrees with their pre-determined terms and conditions on major policy issues. 

A new Israeli coalition will need to have established a general understanding about the future of West Bank settlements, peace negotiations, the participation of the fervently Orthodox in the military or national service, domestic subsidies, and budgetary issues. Any one of these issues can enable or derail a new government. The challenge for the prime minister is to hold together individuals who are constantly maneuvering themselves and their portfolios with an eye toward the next election.

Given the seriousness of some of the issues that the new Israeli government will face on the geopolitical scene alone, the Netanyahu transition could lead to fairly rocky times ahead politically. On the other hand, the Obama transition will, one way or the other, determine the president’s place in history.

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