Electoral reform in Israel: Needed, but not likely
JERUSALEM — The potential silver lining from the national elections — resulting in a frustrated electorate without a clear-cut leader or stable government — is that the country’s voting system, finally exposed as disastrous, will be overhauled.
Logic would dictate such a move, though logic has never been a prime factor in Israeli politics. Like the weather, the electoral system is one of those perennial topics for complaint here, but one that no one does anything about. In all likelihood the next government will be as ineffective and short-lived as previous ones. After all, Israel has had 32 governments in 61 years, an average of under two years each — a formula for weak leadership and stagnation. Still, in their consecutive “victory” speeches on election night, each of the top three candidates spoke of the pressing need for electoral reform. That need was underscored by the fact that at a time when Israel must deal with pressing security concerns, as well as economic, social and educational crises at home, the next few critical weeks will be spent with the top parties making political deals with each other, and with a variety of smaller parties, in order to cobble together a coalition by reaching a majority of at least 61 in the 120-seat Knesset.
Yet unless there is a dramatic push for reform, that coalition will be stymied from the outset, beset by the competing and narrow interests of small parties more interested in funds for their projects or plumb jobs for their leaders than the greater national good.
That is how it has always been in Israel, since David Ben-Gurion, acting in haste, pushed through an extreme form of the proportional electoral system in 1948, vowing to modify it in the future. He tried, but never was successful, leaving the Jewish state as “the only significant democracy in the world with such an unworkable system,” producing “an unworkable outcome,” according to Amotz Asa-el, an Israeli journalist and historian on electoral reform.
In a lengthy article published last year in Azure, a Shalem Center journal in Israel, he made the case that the results of Israel’s unique system have proven “disastrous.” He argued persuasively that the plethora of small parties makes for radicalized politics, makes long-term planning unrealistic, weakens the prime minister, siphons off government funds and is an overall destabilizing factor. What’s more, since citizens vote for parties rather than individuals, and the parties pick their own slates of candidates, the elected Knesset members are responsible to the party, not to the people. “Perhaps most crucially,” Asa-el wrote, the system “has led talented, accomplished, moral and charismatic people to abandon the political arena to the mediocre, unimaginative and uncharismatic people who currently populate it.”
Still, with the top four parties the election pledged to electoral reform — Kadima, Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Labor represent 80 percent of the population — is this finally the moment for Israel to institute regional elections where Knesset members would be elected by and accountable to local constituents and the prime minister would be assured of a four-year tenure, like in the U.S.?
Uriel Reichman, the president of IDC Herzliya, has been a leading voice for such American-style reform.
He advocates allowing the prime minister to choose his or her Cabinet ministers; holding district elections for individual candidates; eliminating the role of small-party kingmakers; and raising the bar in the Knesset so that at least 75 members would be required to call for new elections, thus improving the chances for a four-year tenure for prime ministers.
But he adds that he has seen similar “outcries” in the past for electoral reform with little results, primarily because Knesset members in effect would have to vote themselves out of office. And, as Reichman observed, “turkeys don’t tend to celebrate Thanksgiving.”
He told me that he would be willing to compromise on specifics of his plan if other reform-minded groups like the Israel Democracy Institute would come up with a consensus proposal and join together to push hard for change. He thinks that will happen now, but he is by no means certain the key politicians will legislate for such reform.
Nehemia Shtrasler, in an op-ed in Haaretz, advocates the major parties forming a coalition for one year with the express goal of initiating this change, and then calling for new elections, thus curing Israeli politics of its “critical illness: instability.”
Most experts believe such action is a fantasy, though, since the stumbling blocks are numerous.
Among them are the fact that the smaller parties have been vigorously opposed to such reform since the state was founded, convinced that their voices would no longer be heard. Asa-el counters that while the result of change would be fewer parties — more than 30 competed in the election — that would not mean that their ideological positions would be weakened.
He cited Peace Now and the Modern Orthodox as proof that movements can have a major impact on Israeli society without having political clout as parties.
Asa-el noted that historically, even leaders of the major parties have “effectively surrendered to the small-party agendas” and seem deeply resistant to scrapping the current system in favor of district elections.
Asa-el would like to see Likud and Kadima, the two biggest vote getters, announce that they plan to form a government based on electoral reform, and have Labor join them. But he would not want to see Yisrael Beiteinu, the surprise of the elections with 15 seats, join such a government, worrying that its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, has a Putin-like view of democracy, favoring a powerful prime minister and weak Knesset with its members appointed by the parties.
In realistic terms, the best outcome now is that the various groups calling for reform will, as Reichman hopes, band together and advocate a clear consensus that the public can understand. Such an effort might result in incremental changes to the current system, like making it tougher to replace a prime minister in midterm.
But don’t count on such improvements happening. More likely is that the next government will be made up of a coalition broad enough to operate at cross purposes and lack the clout or incentive to engage in the kind of vital long-term thinking and planning required to deal with Israel’s many pressing problems.
And that, soon enough, will lead to early elections — and another round of cries for desperately needed electoral reform.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)