Israel's Electoral Complex

By Amotz Asa-El

Israeli politics needs a system overhaul.

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srael’s political crisis has reached alarming proportions. Never before in the country’s history has there been a state of affairs such as exists today, whereby the former president, the current prime minister, and those he originally appointed as finance minister, justice minister, and head of the Income Tax Authority are all in various stages of criminal investigation, indictment, or conviction for offenses ranging from sexual misconduct and tax fraud to unlawful patronage and embezzlement. Clearly, the political arena is in a state of severe moral deterioration.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Israeli public’s faith in the integrity of its governmental institutions is declining rapidly. This pervasive sense of decay has only been compounded by the Second Lebanon War, during which Israel’s politicians failed in their most essential task: The defense of the nation against outside threats. This failure raised questions not only about their morality, but also their competence. Moreover, the abundance of excellent leadership elsewhere in Israel—in, for example, the business, technology, and science sectors—forces one to ask why it cannot be found where it is needed the most.
Some place their hopes in a change of leadership. Yet it is hardly that simple: The magnitude of the corruption and ineptitude currently being uncovered, its penetration into all levels of national and local government, and its chronic persistence even in the face of widespread public revulsion force us to look for explanations that transcend momentary circumstances.
Concerned observers suggest several explanations for Israel’s current woes. Some point to excessively intimate social ties between businessmen and politicians. Others point to the replacement of Israel’s old collectivist ethos with a new individualism, one that places self-interest above everything else. And still others blame a cultural leniency towards the abuse of power. In fact, the root cause of Israel’s current political malaise is not moral or ideological, but structural: Namely, Israel’s unique electoral system.
Israel maintains the world’s most extreme model of the proportional electoral system, and the results are nothing short of disastrous. This system has been depleting Israel’s political energies for decades: It radicalized the territorial debate, debilitated the economy, obstructed long-term planning, derailed government action, distracted cabinets, diverted budgets, weakened prime ministers, destabilized governments, enabled anonymous and often incompetent people to achieve positions of great influence and responsibility, and blurred the distinctions between the executive and legislative branches of government. Perhaps most crucially, it has led talented, accomplished, moral, and charismatic people to abandon the political arena to the mediocre, unimaginative, and uncharismatic people who currently populate it. The electoral system’s contribution to Israel’s current crisis of leadership and governance is grave and possibly decisive. Now is the time, then, to probe its flaws and consider its replacement—before it is too late.

Amotz Asa-El, the former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post, is an adjunct fellow at the Shalem Center.

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