In its 68-year history, no party in the Israeli Knesset has won a majority of seats. As Israel is composed of a variety of different ethnic and religious groups, each with specific interests and needs, the Knesset is simply too saturated with political parties for one to win a majority of votes from its citizenry. Therefore, parties are forced to form coalitions with each other, in order to garner a majority of votes in the Knesset (60 +1, 120 seats total) to pass legislation. Typically, the party that wins the most seats will lead this effort (but not always so).
Smaller parties hold significant leverage over the larger party wishing to form a coalition, as without their support, it would be very difficult to form a coalition and a ruling government. This therein lies the problem under the current system: ministerial portfolios, financial and public policy, are negotiated behind closed doors between these politicians for political gain, and not necessarily based upon qualification or the will of the people. While their policies and actions stand up to public scrutiny during elections, once an election is held, it is difficult for the public to voice its support or concern over the coalition structure itself.
In the wake of the 2013 election, Netanyahu sought Yair Lapid to join him in forming a coalition. Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party won almost 20 seats, and as such, Israel’s beloved news anchor was given a prominent portfolio – Minister of Finance. Despite his lack of experience in finance or economics, Lapid would now be setting financial policy for the state. In recent days, Netanyahu offered the Defense post to Avigdor Liberman, in exchange for Liberman bringing his party’s 6 seats to Netanyahu’s razor-thin 61 seat coalition. With the addition of Yisrael Beiteinu, the coalition now stands at 67 seats, which increases stability by decreasing the impact of smaller parties threatening to break away. With only 61 seats, any breakaway would collapse the government.
Unlike outgoing Defense Minister Ya’alon who was a lifelong military serviceman rising to the rank of Chief of Staff of the IDF (its highest rank), Liberman does not have significant military experience, nor experience in matters of defense. Nevertheless, he will now be making crucial defense decisions for the state. Once again, it seems that Israel’s political leaders were bargaining ministerial portfolios for political gain.
Israel has experimented with electoral reform, such as with run-off elections for the role of Prime Minister, however, one avenue it has not explored is a system in which the electorate can vote for the coalition structure itself. Once a coalition has been formed after the election, the government should host a second round of voting for the coalition structure itself. In this capacity, the coalitions would be forced to be more transparent and open to public scrutiny, as without the majority’s support in the follow-up vote, it could not rule. One potential drawback is the possibility that the populace may not approve of the coalition structure, causing months of endless renegotiations and follow-up elections. With all of its military, diplomatic, and economic challenges, Israel needs a stable government and not months of elections, coalition renegotiations, and follow-up votes.
A secondary option worth discussing is a technocratic style system. A technocratic government is a government in which cabinet officials are required to have previous technical experience in the specific field they are to lead. While there are governments around the world (such as Canada, Italy, and Greece) whose leaders come from technical fields such as economics and science, most modern states do not have such specific requirements. This is perhaps due to the fact that highly capable individuals may garner the support of the people, yet could not go on to lead a particular area of government due to not having adequate experience in that particular field.
From the perspective of government transparency and accountability, requiring cabinet officials to hold some experience prior to taking on their new role could shift the dynamics of coalition building. Ministerial portfolios and policy would still be negotiated between prospective coalition partners, however, their leverage and demands over the larger party would not be as great. For example, in the 2013 election, Netanyahu could have reserved the role of Minister of Finance to someone more qualified in his party, as Lapid, who ran on a campaign of economic reform and sought this portfolio, did not have the experience to serve in such a capacity. This would have softened his demands prior to entering the coalition, reducing back-room dealings, and potentially increasing accountability and transparency.
Both of the systems proposed here have their merits and concerns. Voting for coalition structures would be a new approach in Israel’s history, as a would technocratic style government. As such, it is difficult to predict the success of these proposals. Nevertheless, it can be argued that Israel’s current coalition building methodology is dated, and new proposals could help create a more transparent and accountable governing structure for the benefit of all Israelis.