But a first glance can be deceiving. In this case, very deceiving. Here’s why: Six cabinet members who are also Knesset Members and who have been openly critical of the Gaza plan, nevertheless voted in favor of it. They did so for one simple reason: Prime Minister Sharon threatened to immediately fire them from the cabinet if they voted against it.
Instead of being free to vote according to what they believe is right and best for Israel, they voted under duress: oppose the plan, lose their cabinet jobs; support the plan, keep their cabinet jobs.
There are additional cabinet ministers and deputy ministers who have not been vocally critical of the Gaza plan, but are known to privately harbor serious misgivings about it. Some of them might also have voted against it — if not for the Sharon threat to fire them. Had they felt free to vote according to what they believe is best for the nation, the Gaza plan would have received 61 votes (out of 120) at most, or possibly even 60 or less.
A majority of one — at best — is a feeble majority, not a meaningful majority. And when it comes to the security of the state of Israel and the lives of its citizens, and throwing Jews out of their homes and giving land to a terrorist regime, a feeble majority is just not enough.
This issue — the size of a majority — often comes up in connection with the idea of a national referendum, but is also relevant in assessing the meaning of the Knesset vote. In many countries, a national referendum requires approval by what is called a special majority, since a simple majority could mean one side winning by the slimmest of margins, leaving the nation badly polarized. In the United States, a two-thirds vote in the Senate is required for the federal government to give any territory to a foreign entity.
In the case of the Gaza vote, at least six cabinet ministers should have voted against the plan, because they believe the plan is bad for Israel. Yet they voted in favor of the plan, in order to keep their cabinet positions.
Prime Minister Sharon’s threat to fire his cabinet opponents was wrong. It is one thing for Sharon to insist that cabinet ministers support his policies (at least in general) within the cabinet. But to use their cabinet jobs as leverage to pressure them over a Knesset vote is inappropriate. To have a genuine democracy, the cabinet and the Knesset should remain two separate entities. The outcome of a Knesset vote should be determined according to what the Knesset Members think is best for the country, not because of the prime minister’s threats against cabinet members.
Imagine if members of President Bush’s cabinet were simultaneously serving in the United States Senate, and he threatened to fire them from his cabinet unless they voted a certain way in the Senate. That would be an outrageous distortion of democracy.
The Israeli system of governance contains a serious flaw, which allows cabinet ministers to serve simultaneously as Members of Knesset. One must wonder how Israeli cabinet ministers can be effective at two jobs at once. If Colin Powell was both Secretary of State and also a U.S. Senator, how could he possibly give both jobs the attention they deserve?
For the sake of Israeli democracy, the time has come for Israel to make a clear separation between the Knesset and the cabinet. Members of the cabinet should not be permitted to serve simultaneously in the Knesset. Right now, sixteen of the eighteen cabinet ministers, and all three of the deputy ministers, are all Members of the Knesset. That must change. And modest majorities that are achieved by threats should not be regarded as necessarily reflecting the true will of the Knesset.