Israel’s Awful Electoral System

Recently I’ve struggled with some technical issues on one of my computers. It’s always a similar process: there is a small problem, but there is supposed to be a solution. Unfortunately the solution doesn’t work, but there is a solution to that. And then when the solution to the solution fails, I try to fix it by doing something really stupid, and my original small problem can be forgotten because now I have a really big problem.

Life is like that.

Today in Israel we are solving the problems caused by elections with more elections. We will have yet another, the fourth in two years, in March. This is particularly unpleasant now in the middle of an epidemic, but fixing things always seems just around the corner. After all, there are only two blocs, Right and Left. The great majority of Jewish Israelis fall somewhere on the right; and even if Arab voters are taken into consideration, there is a right-wing majority. If there were just two parties like in the USA, our “Republicans” would beat our “Democrats.” But unfortunately, in the last election (this March) there were eight parties that passed the threshold to enter the Knesset, out of 29 that ran.

I think these elections can’t produce stable governments because of the structure of our system. Members of the 120-member Knesset are elected by a party-based proportional system. The parties choose their lists of candidates by primaries or other means, and the voters vote for the party of their choice. Each party gets a number of seats in the Knesset according to the proportion of their votes in the total. Unlike the US Congress or British Commons they are not elected from specific districts.

No single party, or even two parties, is able to control more than half of the seats in the Knesset, so every government must be a coalition of numerous parties. Coalition negotiations go on for weeks after an election, and involve the head of the ruling party giving out promises and ministerial portfolios to get other parties to sign on. When one of the two main blocs can’t even get 61 seats together, you get a “unity” government, like the one that just fell apart. In that case the number of promises, portfolios, and jobs given out can become expensive. The ridiculous unity government had 36 ministers. Probably half that would be sufficient.

Historically, even before the founding of the state, Israelis were strongly connected to parties with specific ideologies. Laborites, Revisionists, communists, members of religious parties, etc., all had their ideological stances, and they voted for the parties that best matched their views. But as time went on, voters and politicians alike became more pragmatic, and sometimes personalities or specific issues were as important or more than ideologies.

It also happened that the parties themselves changed. The Israeli Left was originally strongly security-oriented (while still socialist or communist), but as the kibbutz movement faded and it began to become clear to everyone that private enterprise was more productive than state-owned monopolies, it changed into a movement focusing more on peace efforts and social justice. The bloody failure of the Oslo Accords, the Second Intifada, and the rise of Hamas in Gaza, caused a great deal of disillusionment with the program of the Left, and much of its strength was sapped by the rise of new, centrist, parties that were almost entirely ideology-free and pragmatic.

An extreme example is the Blue and White Party, which is splintering as I write, made up of disparate and mutually antagonistic politicians united only by a desire to replace Bibi Netanyahu. At the same time, Netanyahu’s Likud has subjugated its formerly strong right-wing ideology to Bibi’s personal goals. It’s significant that the most serious opposition to Netanyahu today is led by two men, Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, right-wingers who were forced out of Likud by Netanyahu – not because of ideological differences, but because Bibi would not allow any challenges to his leadership.

Voters often change which party they vote for from election to election, although they generally stay within the two major left-right blocs. Politicians jump from party to party in a way that would have been unimaginable in the past. Because of the way they are elected, they are  not accountable to the people or even to the party leaders.

All of this is a mismatch for a system designed for parties with determinate ideologies. Instead of a government coming into office with a program, we get a collection of politicians looking out for their own parochial, sometimes personal, interests. Netanyahu is a master of controlling the system, and most of his real opposition comes from outside of it, in the unelected legal, media, academic, and cultural arenas that all lean left.

His opponents claim that his control of the political system is “destroying democracy,” but they leave out the undemocratic consequences of the power of the unelected elites that override the wishes of the PM, the will of the Knesset, and the desires of the general population. This is what gives rise to the complaints that the public “votes for the Right but gets the policies of the Left.”

Even the question of who will be PM may be determined by extra-democratic means, if the elites succeed in taking Netanyahu down by legal maneuvers aided by an unrelenting media assault.

At the risk of proposing solutions that will create big problems, I think that our system needs fundamental change, in order to adapt to the political reality in an advanced first-world country (which we have almost but not quite become).

Some things are easy. There should be term limits on the position of Prime Minister. At the same time, he should be immune from prosecution for most crimes during his time in office. That would keep the legal and enforcement establishment at bay, while preventing any one man from building a political empire.

Other things are harder, such as the change from proportional voting to a system in which some or all of the candidates stand for election in geographical districts rather than as a member of a party list. There are many complications here – particularly in drawing up the districts fairly – but the great advantage is the personal accountability of the candidates to the voters.

It’s true that nobody wants to change a system that is working to their advantage. But with election number four coming up, I think everyone should be able to agree that the only ones truly benefiting from this system are our enemies.

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1 Response to Israel’s Awful Electoral System

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    The analysis is correct, and the remedy suggested is in the right direction. But how can one possibly get all the small–parties whose self-interest is in preserving the coalition blackmail system to forfeit their place and power?
    It seems to me that we are headed for another failed election with no sign of anyone understanding that the system should be changed. This is a truly worrisome situation.

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