Israel's Electoral Complex

By Amotz Asa-El

Israeli politics needs a system overhaul.

Bills calling for regional elections were presented to the Knesset some ten times between 1958 and 1988 by various sponsors, including prominent mainstream politicians from the Right, Left, and Center. Some of the bills passed their first readings, reflecting broad public awareness of and disenchantment with the effects of Israel’s PR system.28 However, all such attempts at reform were summarily torpedoed by the religious parties, which, unlike the rest of the anti-reform lobby, have almost always been partly represented in Israel’s many governments, and were therefore in a position to obstruct any reform legislation.
Only once did electoral reform seem to be within reach. In 1984, with the economy teetering on the brink of collapse and the Knesset almost evenly divided between the Labor and Likud blocs, senior members of both parties began the dialogue that eventually produced the national unity government, which ultimately resolved the hyper-inflation crisis. One of the issues they began to discuss was reform of the electoral system, whose deficiencies they had just experienced firsthand, and which had proved as disastrous for the political system as hyper-inflation had been for the economy. This forum convened for several months and began to hammer out a bill calling for partial regional elections. However, this attempt was once again quashed by the religious parties, who threatened to sever all ties with the Likud once and for all should the party support electoral reform. Labor leader Shimon Peres also showed no enthusiasm for the idea he had championed as co-founder of Ben-Gurion’s Rafi. By the next general election, the effort had been abandoned.
By the 1990s, most reformers had despaired of challenging the religious establishment, and made do with the idea of direct elections for the office of prime minister alone. Activated first in 1996, and undertaken three times before being rescinded in 2001, this idea bastardized the whole concept of plurality elections: Providing voters with the opportunity to cast a ballot for a prime ministerial candidate and a separate ballot for a party list, this odd half-reform in fact gave voters more, not less, incentive to vote for smaller parties. Other than this one misbegotten attempt at change, Israel’s only successful electoral reform has been the raising of the threshold percentage for entering the Knesset to its current level of two percent.
The many political reform bills currently before the Knesset scrupulously avoid the issue of electoral reform.29 In the course of a personal survey of Knesset lawmakers, conducted in late 2006 and early 2007, this author discovered that most of them take the existing system as a given, whether out of despair, ignorance, or expediency.30 Evidently, the anti-reform lobby’s pressure has been so effective that Ben-Gurion’s original reformist inspiration, and a subsequent generation’s attempts to fulfill it, have all but vanished, even as Israel’s political decay has become impossible to ignore.
The anti-reformists give diverse explanations for their position, most of which tend to conceal their fear of a new and unknown system in which many of them have reason to suspect they will not survive politically.31
They argue, for instance, that Israel does not need regional elections because-to quote a former foreign minister-“Israel is a small country and there is no difference between Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan.”32 This reasoning confuses regionalism with federalism, as district elections are held not in order to respect local distinctions, but in order to hold legislators accountable to their constituents rather than to a party apparatus. Furthermore, the idea that Israel’s size precludes the use of a plurality system is patently unfounded. Denmark, Austria, Finland, and Sweden, all of which have populations roughly comparable to Israel’s, have held regional elections for decades to no ill effect; so, too, does New Zealand, whose population of 3.8 million is only slightly more than half that of Israel.33 Such facts, however, have yet to have any significant impact on the anti-reformists.34
Some supporters of PR claim that, in a district system, voters will be forced to accept representatives with whom they disagree, for whom they did not vote, and who may not tend to their specific needs.35 This implies that no voter should live where he can’t get his favored candidate elected, a bizarre argument when one considers that accepting occasional political defeat is a fact of life in any kind of democracy. Moreover, a regionally elected representative who chooses to pander to a single group within the larger community he represents is unlikely to be re-elected. For this reason, politicians elected in a district system tend towards pragmatism and moderation, eschewing exclusionary or sectarian policies.
Other opponents of reform maintain that a regionally elected Knesset would neglect the national agenda.36 Yet experience elsewhere in the world demonstrates that regionally elected parliaments manage national affairs no less patriotically or efficiently than the proportionally elected Knesset. Undoubtedly, district constituents will expect representatives to look after their local affairs while deciding, for instance, how to treat a proposed budget, and a lawmaker may well cast his vote in return for a local quid pro quo. However, a district representative will also have to consider whether his constituents, who will now also be his neighbors, will approve of a failed budget vote and an early election as a result.37
Another common argument among the anti-reformists refers to Israel’s delicate social fabric. Regionalizing the Israeli system, some of them caution, would diminish the representation of unique populations such as Arabs, Druze, modern-Orthodox, and Haredi Jews, and effectively disenfranchise them. There is no doubt that Israel’s sociological makeup is unique, and it would be unwise to ignore the political dimensions of this fact. The question, however, is whether regionalism would actually hurt these communities, and the answer is that it is unlikely to do so. Under a regionalized system, the large parties will be forced to field candidates who will be agreeable to the local communities they serve, whatever their origins may be. In America, for instance, Jewish or black constituencies have historically favored representatives from the Democratic Party, despite the fact that these representatives have not necessarily been Jewish or black themselves. Moreover, in existing regional systems around the world, extra-parliamentary ideological movements and non-governmental organizations tend to create alliances with the major political parties to the benefit of their supporters, though it is true that in a plurality system these groups will not wield the kind of influence that Peace Now and Gush Emunim have enjoyed in the past. It is equally likely that reform will relegate smaller parties such as Meretz and the Ihud Leumi (the National Union) to the political sidelines. It is doubtful, however, that this will be the case with Shas or the various Arab parties, whose constituencies are more stable and contiguous. These parties will survive a regionalist reform, though their politicians will likely emerge from it more moderate and pragmatic.
The anti-reform lobby’s impact is most potent among senior politicians, many of whom simply refuse to take a stand on the issue.38 Clearly, they are all deeply aware of this lobby’s influence, and prefer not to confront what ought to be seen as a significant threat to Israel’s political future. Surely, any reform will be difficult to plan and execute, yet it is nothing that has not been done elsewhere. Nor is it unprecedented in Israel’s history. The 1985 economic reform, for instance, also entailed socially explosive measures, and was challenged by skeptics who insisted that what works in Europe and America does not apply to Israel. Indeed, the slogan endlessly repeated by Israeli supporters of PR is “Israel is different.” Their opponents can retort that it is not.
It may take years for meaningful electoral reform to take shape, but ultimately Israel will have to undergo a thorough political overhaul, one in which at least half, and hopefully many more, of its lawmakers will be elected directly in their districts of residence. Under this system, the Knesset will be governed by a different spirit, one in which a critical mass of lawmakers will be dependent on, and thus loyal to, their local community, and not to a party machine. Regionally elected legislators will spend much of their workweek in their constituencies, in day-to-day personal contact with voters. Thus, with his priorities set by his neighbors rather than party forums, an MK’s convictions will be less vulnerable to pressure from party bosses and the manipulation of radical NGOs. The prospect, for instance, of Israel’s Basic Laws being abruptly amended in order to meet a particular government’s momentary needs will become less likely, because the directly elected lawmaker, as his community’s sole representative in the legislature, will be much more closely scrutinized.
A directly elected Knesset will also raise the quality of leadership and governance in Israel, because a candidate’s election will depend on satisfying his local constituents and not on blind obedience to party superiors. Consequently, people who are more courageous, accomplished, and independent than today’s average Israeli politician will begin to gravitate toward the political arena. At the same time, legislative output itself will improve, as service in the Knesset will be seen as a mission rather than a patronage appointment, and will no longer be considered inferior to an executive position.
Since small parties and single-issue movements will find it much more difficult to win district elections, a directly elected Knesset will be less fragmented. As such, it will be less vulnerable to the kind of radicalism that corrupted the post-1967 territorial debate and exacerbated the post-1977 economic crisis. In a district system, radicals lose the ability to manipulate the political parties through the central committees. Instead, they will have to go from constituency to constituency seeking election, only to learn that most people prefer pragmatic lawmakers who focus on voters’ day-to-day problems rather than on indulging, as Hermens put it, in “world outlooks” that are never tested by “the stubborn facts of real experience.”
Furthermore, a reduction in the number of parties will increase government stability. Coalitions will comprise fewer parties and be easier to create, while cabinets will see less turnover and greater collaboration among ministers. So, too, as governments last longer and become less bloated with officials appointed for political reasons, they will become more capable of long-term planning. Finally, as the system gradually attracts better leaders and produces better governance, it will be met with greater voter turnouts and, most important, greater trust and respect from the general public.
These difficult but necessary changes demand a leader who is prepared to confront the powerful anti-reform lobby, much as the 1985 economic recovery plan demanded a confrontation with pro-union forces from the Left and economic populists from the Right. The crisis that the Israeli political system faces today is no less ominous than the catastrophe that faced the Israeli economy in the mid-1980s. It threatens the integrity, the strength, and the future of the state, in much the same way as PR debilitated the Weimar Republic.39 Treating it will therefore take the same vision, resolve, and impartiality that Israel’s leaders displayed back then, and rarely display today. Yet now as then, it is nothing that cannot be done. It just takes leadership.

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

The author would like to thank Sam Lipski and Peter Adler of the Pratt Foundation for their help in conducting the research this article required, as well as Saul Singer, his longtime colleague at the Jerusalem Post, and the late Gad Yaacobi, former minister and aide to David Ben-Gurion, for their time and good advice.
1. For a related bibliography, see Carl J. Friedrich, Constitutional Government and Democracy: Theory and Practice in Europe and America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1941), p. 633.
2. John Stuart Mill, Collected Works, XIX (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1977), pp. 371-577. See also Douglas J. Amy, Real Choices/New Voices: The Case for Proportional Representation Elections in the United States (New York: Columbia, 1993); Harry Eckstein and David E. Apter, Comparative Politics: A Reader (New York: Free Press, 1963), p. 254; Friedrich, Constitutional Government and Democracy, p. 278; Ian Shapiro, The State of Democratic Theory (Princeton: Princeton, 2003), pp. 110-112.
3. Mill, Collected Works, p. 455.
4. Mill, Collected Works, p. 455.
5. Mill, Collected Works, p. 449.
6. Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (London: Oxford, 1927), p. 136.
7. Bagehot, English Constitution, p. 137.
8. Bagehot, English Constitution, p. 140.
9. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, eds., The Weimar Republic: Sourcebook (Berkeley: University of California, 1994), pp. 92-96 and 105-109.
10. Dieter K. Buse and Juergen C. Doerr, eds., Modern Germany: An Encyclopedia of History, People, and Culture, 1871-1990 (New York: Garland, 1998), p. 271.
11. Ferdinand A. Hermens, “The Dynamics of Proportional Representation,” in Eckstein and Apter, Comparative Politics, pp. 254-280.
12. Hermens, “Dynamics of Proportional Representation,” p. 261.
13. Hermens, “Dynamics of Proportional Representation,” p. 262.
14. Hermens, “Dynamics of Proportional Representation,” p. 263.
15. Hermens, “Dynamics of Proportional Representation,” p. 261.
16. Hermens, “Dynamics of Proportional Representation,” p. 269.
17. Hermens, “Dynamics of Proportional Representation,” p. 271.
18. Hermens, “Dynamics of Proportional Representation,” p. 275.
19. Hermens, “Dynamics of Proportional Representation,” p. 275.
20. Hermens, “Dynamics of Proportional Representation,” p. 276.
21. The general election of 1919 ended with the moderate wing of the Social Democrats winning 37.9 percent of the vote and the Christian Democrats 19.7 percent. Statistical studies indicate that in a plurality system the Social Democrats would have won an absolute majority. Hermens would later claim that the theoretical ailments he found in the PR system, from rejecting young talents to promoting non-leaders, plagued the Weimar Republic in practice. See Ferdinand A. Hermens, The Representative Republic (Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 1958), p. 168. Buse and Doerr conclude that “proportional representation made it easy for small parties to enter the Reichstag, may have exaggerated the fragmentation of parties, and increased the power of the party bureaucracy which drew up the candidate list.” See Buse and Doerr, Modern Germany, p. 192.
22. This includes eleven minority governments that lasted an aggregate eight years, or nearly two-thirds of the Weimar Republic’s existence.
23. Under the British system, Germany’s Social Democrats would have doubled their seats in the 1930 Reichstag rather than decline from 153 to 143 out of a total of 577 seats. The Nazis not only would have failed to make their dramatic gains, then, but would actually have lost seats. Buse and Doerr, Modern Germany, p. 192.
24. Over the past decade alone, the positions of prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, and finance minister changed hands an aggregate twenty-nine times among some twenty people.
25. In the current Knesset, this form of electoral abuse has reached such an extremity that 65 of its 120 legislators (29 from Kadima, 12 from Shas, 6 from United Tora Judaism, 11 from Yisrael Beitenu, and 7 from the Gil pensioners party) have been selected by party leaders rather than elected in a freely contested procedure involving the public. Ehud Barak’s recently expressed desire to handpick a sizable portion of Labor MKs indicates that this trend will not be offset anytime soon.
26. Provisional State Council Proceeding (1948), p. 17 [Hebrew].
27. On the evolution and character of Israeli democracy see Asher Arian, Politics in Israel: The Second Generation (Washington, D.C.: Chatham, 1989); Dan Horowitz and Moshe Lissak, The Origins of the Israeli Polity: Palestine Under the Mandate (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1978); Peter Medding, The Founding of Israeli Democracy, 1948-1967 (New York: Oxford, 1990); Ehud Sprinzak and Larry Diamond, eds., Israeli Democracy Under Stress (Boulder, Colo.: L. Rienner, 1993).
28. In 1984, a bill based on Ben-Gurion’s original model of 120 MKs elected in 120 regions passed a first reading in the Knesset. Other than this, the electoral-reform bills in question offered assorted mixed models, as their sponsors sought to allay fears that such reform would effectively kill the religious parties. In 1958, Yosef Serlin of the General Zionists proposed an electoral reform that would divide the country into thirty regions, each of which would elect three lawmakers, while the remaining thirty would be elected nationally. In 1972, a bill based on this system passed a first reading. In 1987, a bill sponsored by the Labor party calling for the election of eighty MKs in twenty districts, and forty MKs nationwide passed a first reading. In 1988, a bill sponsored by MK Mordechai Virshubski (Ratz) and forty-three other MKs offered two alternatives: One proposed the creation of twenty districts that would elect four lawmakers each, while the remaining forty would be elected nationally; the other proposed that sixty MKs would be elected in sixty districts, with the remaining sixty elected nationally. This too passed a first reading.
29. Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar has introduced a private member’s bill calling for the election of sixty MKs in sixty regions, though he concedes that this is a gesture of protest and the bill has no chance of even being tabled. Law Committee chairman Menahem Ben-Sasson told this author that he wants more than sixty MKs to be elected regionally, but has yet to find sufficient backing for proposals that are even less ambitious.
Proposed governmental reforms in the current Knesset include: Capping the number of ministers; crowning as prime minister the leader of the largest elected faction; raising the minimal number of MKs required for a no-confidence vote; making the number two on the ruling party’s list the prime minister’s automatic replacement; and requiring that a minimum number of non-partisan professionals be included in the cabinet.
Parliamentary reform proposals include: Granting Knesset committees the power to fire ministers; formation of a separate committee to supervise each ministry; capping committee size at fifteen MKs each; requiring periodic ministerial reports to the relevant Knesset committees; banning joint membership in the Knesset and the cabinet; canceling the Knesset’s automatic dissolution in case of failure to pass the budget; raising the number of MKs necessary for dissolving the Knesset; demanding a party executive’s approval for the breakup of a parliamentary faction; and raising the threshold for Knesset election to 3 percent.
Proposed budget-related reforms include: Moving the submission deadline forward by thirty days, delegating the budget debate to various parliamentary committees, and subjecting the budget framework to a separate legislative process.
30. Based on statements made to this author in a survey of seventy-eight currently serving MKs whose parties do not oppose district elections, and four leaders of the anti-reform bloc. The survey was conducted via personal meetings, telephone, and email in late 2006 and early 2007.
31. Opponents of reform comprise half of the current Knesset and include eighteen MKs from Kadima, Labor, Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, and the Gil pensioners party. An additional twenty-four MKs from the mainstream parties refuse to take a position on the issue. Thirty-six MKs support a transition to various models of regional elections.
32. Likud MK Silvan Shalom to this author, in an email received February 6, 2007.
33. In Denmark (pop. 5.2 million), 135 of the Folketing’s 179 members are elected in seventeen metropolitan districts. In Austria (8.06 million), the Bundesrat’s 62 members are elected in nine provinces, and the Nationalrat’s 183 members are elected in twenty-five districts. In Finland (5.2 million), the Riksdagen’s 200 members are elected in fifteen districts; in Sweden (9 million), 310 of the Riksdag’s 349 members are elected in twenty-eight districts. And in New Zealand (3.8 million), sixty-nine of one hundred twenty Members of Parliament are elected in sixty-nine districts and fifty-one by party list. See Michael Gallagher and Paul Mitchell, eds., The Politics of Electoral Systems (Oxford: Oxford 2005); Arthur Banks, Thomas Muller, and William Overstreet, eds., Political Handbook of the World 2005-2006 (Washington, D.C.: CO Press, 2006).
34. MKs Zahava Galon (Meretz), Michael Melchior (Labor), Yitzhak Aharonovich and Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beitenu), Limor Livnat and Yisrael Katz (Likud), have cited Israel’s size as the primary reason for retaining the current proportional system. Some, like Katz, appear to be unaware of the use of the plurality system in other small countries, and, in a telephone exchange with the author on February 14, 2007, Katz expressed genuine interest in the issue. Others, like Melchior, a native Scandinavian, cannot claim ignorance. In an email to the author received on December 27, 2006, Galon conceded through a spokesman that her primary objection is the fact that small parties like her own are unlikely to survive serious electoral reform.
35. Phone interview with MK Michael Melchior (Labor), February 26, 2007. A resident of Jerusalem, Melchior went on to say that in a district system he would be represented by Haredi politician Rabbi Meir Porush, “and there is no chance he will look after my needs.”
36. This objection was raised by MKs Ruhama Avraham and Ze’ev Elkin (Kadima), Limor Livnat (Likud), and Alex Miller (Yisrael Beitenu).
37. In an email received by the author on March 19, 2007, Yosef Shagal (Yisrael Beitenu) expressed concern that local issues would override national ones. In contrast, chairman of the coalition Eli Aflalo (Kadima) stated through a spokesman that, in his opinion, the election of MKs by region will help the national cause by catering to the currently underserved periphery. Aflalo’s comments were made to the author via email received on March 19, 2007.
38. Included among them are such senior figures as Ehud Olmert, Benjamin Netanyahu, Dalia Itzik, and former MK and current president Shimon Peres. Most tellingly, Olmert’s official reply, received via email on May 13, 2007, was that he would take a position on the issue only when the Knesset officially addresses it-a prospect he knows to be highly unlikely. Equally evasive were former finance minister Avraham Hirchson, his successor Roni Bar-On, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, all of whom refrained from taking a stand.
39. Obviously, Israel’s political predicament is not fully analogous to that of the Weimar Republic. Israel is now almost five times as old as Weimar was at its death, and has a vibrant democratic tradition going back to the original Zionist Congress in 1897, a tradition that did not exist in inter-war Germany. Moreover, the emergence of a fascist threat to Israeli democracy is highly unlikely in a society which embraces defiance of authority as both a moral value and something of a national pastime. However, this does not change the fact that Israel’s political system-as opposed to its democratic ethos-is showing signs of decay not unlike those that heralded the Weimar Republic’s demise; and while Israel’s citizenry may not be ripe for the fascist plucking, its electoral system, which is even more radically proportional than that adopted by the Weimar constitution, is increasingly losing the people’s trust, respect, and attention. While authoritarianism is not much of a danger to twenty-first century Israel, anarchy most certainly is.

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