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It’s the system, stupid

Under Israel's fractured political structure, governments are too easily bullied, coerced and even toppled

For those scratching their heads about the uncertainty and confusion surrounding the election results, here’s some food for thought: it’s the system, stupid.

The Israeli electoral system is a total disaster for the country, and it is in dire need of reform. The electoral system is probably the number one cause of political uncertainty, instability, and even extremism.

But electoral systems are an unappetizing subject for most voters. They can be complex, difficult to understand, and there is little that is especially exciting about the way they work except to hardcore psephophiles. And few of the parties consider the system to be a major issue. Yesh Atid does, at least according to Dov Lipman, and so does Yisrael Beiteinu, but most of the others don’t. Indeed, at campaign events around the country, candidates from almost every major and minor party dismiss the electoral system as a political issue. Soon-to-be-former MK Einat Wilf makes the facile argument that “all electoral systems in democracies suck equally.” Sitting at Labor HQ as the final results were coming in last night, there wasn’t a sense that this is a major issue. And this isn’t on Likud’s agenda, either.

(Full disclosure: I campaigned for Labor this election, but my views in this article do not necessarily represent those of the party.)

The Israeli electoral system treats the entire country as a single district. No local members. Voters cast their ballots for a party, not a candidate. Parties currently only need to receive 2% of votes cast in order to enter the Knesset.

This system strongly encourages the flourishing of small- and medium-sized parties, and a concomitantly fractured political map. No political party has ever received a majority in the Knesset. The party with the strongest likelihood of forming a coalition of at least 61 in the 120-seat Knesset is asked to form government by the president. And so Israeli governments are bullied, coerced and frequently toppled by troublesome, often radical, coalition partners.

Nobody knows this better than Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government was toppled in 1999 when his radical right-wing coalition partners brought a vote of no-confidence and ended Netanyahu’s first spell in office, after several years of political instability under his narrow right-wing government.

Israel’s system differs from two-party systems such as America’s and Australia’s because in those countries, voters cast their ballots in multiple districts, for a single member. So, in Australia, for example, the party with the largest number of seats in the lower house is asked to form government, just as in Israel. But in contrast, thanks to both the multi-district/single-member system in Australia, and the preferential/instant-runoff method of counting votes and picking a winner, the system favors the larger parties. I will discuss the details further in another article; for now, let’s focus on what it would mean.

If Israel had a political system like Australia’s, you wouldn’t see this constant parade of new and fashionable parties, or these parties based on a single personality (Barak’s Atzma’ut, Livni’s Hatnua, even Lapid’s Yesh Atid), nor would you see the steady stream of lunatics and extremists, of all stripes, consistently getting seats in the parliament.

Apart from advantaging larger parties at the expense of smaller and more extreme parties, moving to a multiple-district system would also bring with it local representatives to address local concerns. No such luck now – if you have a problem in your area that the city council can’t deal with, have fun trying to get a member of Knesset to deal with it. Right now, 120 people represent 8 million people, with no responsibility for any particular constituency.

There’s no question that in some districts, you would still see boutique parties win seats. Bnei Brak might elect a haredi party candidate, part of Tel Aviv might elect a Meretz candidate, and so forth. But in many districts around the country, people who voted for the smaller leftist and rightist parties would end up, at least in a system like Australia’s, giving their vote through preferences on their ballot sheet to a larger center-left or center-right party – probably Labor or Likud. They’d choose, say, some small niche party as number 1, then Meretz number 2, then Labor number 3, and when the preferences got redistributed, a winner would emerge. In many districts, that would tend to be the larger, center-left and center-right parties. You’d get something approximating a two-party system.

At the moment, Israelis seem unwilling to think outside of the current system. I frequently hear responses like, “Israel is too small for such a system.” The physical or demographic size of the country, however, is not salient here. Electoral reform is possible, and not all electoral systems are created equal. A radical overhaul would produce changes that would strengthen Israeli democracy. And right now, nobody’s talking about them.

About the Author
Gabriel Sassoon is a Tel Aviv-based public affairs consultant and foreign media advisor to a Knesset Deputy Speaker. He served as English Campaign Coordinator for the Israeli Labor Party, and is a member of the Australian Labor Party. The views expressed above are his alone.