Israel's Electoral Complex

By Amotz Asa-El

Israeli politics needs a system overhaul.

In a category of their own are Israel’s retired generals, whose unique place in Israeli politics is not only, as most people assume, a byproduct of the country’s ongoing military conflict with its neighbors. It is also a result of the proportional system’s deficiencies. Retired generals have been a permanent fixture in the Knesset for the past four decades because lackluster career politicians-the PR system’s “party men”-need them to create the impression that their lists are offering the charisma that they themselves lack. However, once admitted to the system, the generals, too, are soon conditioned to serve party bosses and forums, often by distributing patronage. Worse still, while the generals are frequently blessed with leadership skills, they are just as frequently politically clueless. Though well-informed on matters of national security, they are glaringly uninformed regarding fundamental domestic issues. In a district system, most of them would fail to be elected, because voters would expect them to discuss local concerns such as teachers’ salaries, health care, and electricity bills before regaling them with insights into the grand questions of war and peace.
Indeed, the basic reality of most Western democracies, in which political careers begin with, and depend on, constant dialogue with local voters, has yet to arrive in Israel. Local politicians-whether they are careerist technocrats or ex-generals-are not accountable to their voters, but to the few thousand members of their party’s central committee, or worse, to a single charismatic leader who handpicks the party list.25
Worse still, the PR system has seriously impaired the Israeli government’s ability to tackle controversial but nonetheless vital issues.
Several fateful moments stand out in this regard. The 1985 economic stabilization program, for example: While the plan was presented by Likud finance minister Yitzhak Modai, and was in line with his party’s pro-free market platform, it was nonetheless opposed by Likud members of Knesset (MKs) who were forced by a minority within their faction to oppose measures like cutting food subsidies, freezing public-sector wages, and raising interest rates. Fortunately, the plan ultimately received cabinet approval despite populist opposition, and saved the Israeli economy from disaster. Yet despite its necessity, the effort was nearly squelched because of the exaggerated influence the proportional system grants to small special-interest groups.
The Knesset’s treatment of the territorial dilemma Israel has faced since the Six Day War suffers from the same malady, as the PR system tends to reward extremism and discourage consensus. One can be happy or unhappy with the settlement buildup of the 1980s or the Oslo accords of the 1990s, but there can be no arguing with the fact that both were inspired by the extra-parliamentary groups Gush Emunim and Peace Now, respectively, which appropriated and radicalized what should have been-and initially was-a civil and pragmatic policy debate. These movements took advantage of the chronic divisions inherent in a proportionally elected legislature to create the false impression that the country was split down the middle between extreme choices.
Israel’s PR system not only radicalized political positions, it also cheapened them. In 1994, three lawmakers from the Tzomet faction decided to back the Oslo process in return for seats in the government, thus salvaging a policy their own voters vehemently opposed, and much of the centrist public had by then abandoned. The Tzomet defectors, whose leader was admitted to Rabin’s security cabinet, and later served a jail term for drug trafficking, were susceptible to such wheeling and dealing because PR offered them a unique combination of anonymity and clout that they would not have enjoyed in a district system.
Finally, since the proportional system does not demand constituent service, Israeli lawmakers often see a parliamentary seat as little more than a springboard to executive office. In fact, in the minds of most Israeli lawmakers, there is no point to a political career that does not potentially culminate in such an appointment. Consequently, the pressure from those still outside the executive branch on those already inside it is structured to persist and escalate, thus increasing the likelihood of officials being appointed regardless of merit, ministers being replaced regardless of record, agencies being created regardless of necessity, and governments falling prematurely regardless of the public will.
How did we come to this?
The Israeli electoral system was born in a moment of severe crisis. In October 1948, with the War of Independence still raging, the chairman of the election committee, David Bar-Rav-Hai, reported to the provisional Knesset on the preparations for Israel’s first general election:
The committee spent little time exploring theoretical alternatives, even while some members support in principle a regional system… almost all members concluded that in these elections and under the current circumstances, of war and large-scale mobilization, this theoretical debate isn’t important. If we want to carry out an election quickly we have no choice but to opt for a national proportionate system. Any other system would demand much more complicated preparations and will be impossible to carry out within a short period of time.26
As this brief paragraph succinctly informs us, the foundations of Israel’s political system were improvised under abnormal conditions. With the fledgling Jewish state still fighting for its independence, the need to quickly consolidate its newfound sovereignty by electing its first parliament outweighed any concerns about the mechanics of Israel’s political system, and left no time even to consider the kind of exhaustive constitutional debates that accompanied the establishment of most other modern democracies.
Originally devised under the British Mandate in order to elect the quasi-parliament of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine), Israel’s proportional system required political parties to run lists of candidates on a national ticket, with no local representation whatsoever.27 Under pre-1948 circumstances this was a reasonable system, since the Yishuv was minuscule, its elected representatives were not sovereign, and the representation of myriad ideologies and communities, as allowed by the proportional system, seemed both just and practical. Subsequent history, however, soon proved the system inadequate.
The first Israeli statesman to issue an explicit warning about the defects inherent in the proportional system and to advocate its replacement was none other than David Ben-Gurion, who attempted as early as October 1948 to pass a cabinet resolution in favor of plurality elections based on the British model. Ben-Gurion believed that PR created too many political parties, none of which would ever be large enough to constitute a majority of the Knesset, and which would be forced to share power in ways that would paralyze policymakers. Worse still, the system would nurture its own instability, since it allowed-and in fact encouraged-smaller parties to bring down the government in service of their own partisan interests. Though Ben-Gurion’s concerns would later prove to be prophetic, his proposed reform was flatly rejected by the cabinet’s religious members, who were convinced, with good reason, that they would lose political power and influence under a district-based system.
Over the course of his long career, Ben-Gurion attempted to change Israel’s electoral system several times. In September 1954, the leadership of Ben-Gurion’s ruling Mapai party voted 52-6 in favor of including electoral reform in its platform. The decisive statement, however, was made passively by the party’s remaining forty-seven members, who did not share Ben-Gurion’s reformist zeal and abstained from the vote.
In 1964, a year after his resignation from the office of prime minister, Ben-Gurion toyed with the idea of setting up a multi-party, ad-hoc movement that would run on the sole issue of electoral reform. For that purpose, he joined forces with the Liberal party and met with Ari Jabotinsky, son of his prestate rival Ze’ev Jabotinsky, as well as former IDF chief of staff and famed archaeologist Yigael Yadin. Ben-Gurion soon learned, however, that prime minister Levi Eshkol had rendered his efforts futile by promising various small parties that he would block any attempt at electoral reform for the following eight years. Finally, when Ben-Gurion established the Rafi party in 1965, electoral reform was central to its platform, but by the time it joined the Eshkol government on the eve of the Six Day War, the looming conflict had pushed all other issues aside.

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