12:38 , 01.04.07


Government Reform
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Council of Tel Aviv, Beverly Hills and Iran

Committee that examined Israeli government reform far from impressive
Prof. Ariel Rubinstein

The committee for examination of the structure of the Government in Israel submitted its recommendations this week to President Katsav and the committee's report won extensive media coverage.


The committee was engendered by a presidential declaration in 2003: "In light of the current situation in the state, a national public commission of public figures and experts should be urgently formed to discuss and recommend necessary reforms in the structure of the government and elections in Israel." Despite the undoubtedly good intentions, and without discussing the actual recommendations, some questions come to mind about the committee's work.


The committee's website states that for this mission "73 central figures were carefully chosen from all sectors of Israeli society, leaders of universities, scholars and experts in the field of government and elections, public officials, and others."


How could 73 (Israeli) people seriously discuss revising the system of government? Apparently, they did not. The committee's site displays pictures from its plenary sessions.


The second plenary session was festively held at the Dan Panorama Hotel and was attended by all of the who's who, but the pictures from the other sessions indicate sparse attendance. The most prominent element in the pictures from the last plenary session is the untouched bottles of water, intended for the majority of committee members who did not come to the meeting.


Five of the six subcommittees, which dealt with such world-embracing issues as "Democracy in the Shadow of Existential Crisis," barely convened. I would wager a guess that a handful of committee members composed the report and that the rest were intended for decoration. I called three committee members whom I know and – what a surprise! – the three had never signed the report.


The committee had academic pretensions and was chaired by the president of Hebrew University. A member of the steering committee was the president of Tel Aviv University, which was said to have "granted academic sponsorship to the committee." It turns out that "academic sponsorship" has been reduced to granting hospitality services. The committee's Web site indicates that it was actually the Citizens' Empowerment Center in Israel that "handled the academic and administrative side of the committee."


Strangest organization I have encountered  

What is the Citizens' Empowerment Center (CEC) in Israel? It is the strangest organization I have encountered on the Tel Aviv campus. I was introduced to it when I was once invited to speak at a conference the CEC organized entitled "The Future of Higher Education in Israel."


I discovered that the person deemed worthy of concluding the discussion was for some reason Shaul Mofaz, the defense minister at the time. The head of the CEC is a professor who is also responsible for the Parviz and Pouran Nazarian Chair for Modern Iranian Studies.


The CEC is an independent non-profit organization housed within the university complex in a building that previously served as the offices of the university's architect. When the building became vacant, it could have been used to house outstanding research and post-doctoral students, but the university had a different set of priorities. The building was given an "extra-territorial status" and a special entrance via the gates of the university.


The CEC's founder and financer is a billionaire by the name of Isaac Parviz Nazarian. Nazarian's businesses are in "defense, aerospace and communications." He has been called the "the world's richest Jew of Iranian descent."


Nazarian lived here in the early 1950s. In 1956, he returned to Iran and when Khomeini rose to power in 1979 he chose to make his home in Beverly Hills. He came to the committee's first plenary session, held at the President's Residence, with his daughter and son-in-law. He was seated at the presidential table and even made a speech immediately after the president of Israel and the university presidents.


Nazarian is not renowned as a political philosopher and Beverly Hills is not a suburb of Tel Aviv. What is Nazarian doing on a committee to select the system of government in Israel? Does the state lack the funds required to operate a public committee that is "so important" and needs to curry favor with a philanthropist?


What is depressing is that many good and honest people lent a hand to this committee without noting that more than reforming the system of government and empowering the citizen they were weakening the democracy and strengthening the influence of plutocrats in Israeli society.