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Fixing Israel’s Electoral System

TOI Fellow Blogger Benyamin Mowlem’s “How to Fix Israel’s Broken Electoral System” is timely. This is a response to his Blog of June 30, 2022. According to his bio, he was born  and raised in Chicago, lived in Israel and worked as a foreign law clerk for the Deputy Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel. He concurrently resides in Chicago and New York.

This response largely references the published work of Professor Paul Eidelberg, who has directed many years of his professional experience on the destructive flaws of Israel’s political and judicial institutions.

Mowlem somewhat falls short in his lengthy piece, in not sufficiently emphasizing a recognition that in a true democracy, power and authority are granted by the consent of the governed. They cannot simply be seized – not even by the sophisticated judges in dignified robes. Apart there from, there is consistency between the 2 authors.

The Ariel Center for Policy Research, published Policy Paper Number 79, “Making Votes Count: They Don’t in Israel” by Paul Eidelberg during 1999. His initial comment speaks volumes. Israelis vote, but their votes do not count! When questioned why, Eidelberg responds it is because Israel’s parliamentary electoral system is based on fixed party lists, not on district or constituency elections.

Hence, Knesset Members [MKs] owe their position, power, and perks not to the voters, but to party bosses. This clearly violates the principle of representative democracy. Of 75 countries having democratic elections for the lower [or only]  branch of the legislature, Israel is the only one that does not have district elections. Hence, the consequences are profound.

Consequently, MKs must kowtow to their party leaders who head the various cabinet ministries and they cannot effectively exercise the vital function of administrative oversight. This undoubtedly accounts for the bureaucratic corruption, inefficiency, and violations of law and procedures reported [in vain] by the State Controller. Not any less, as the Government consists of MKs, whose position does not depend on constituent elections, can, and often does, ignore constituent elections, it can, and often does, ignore public opinion with impunity.

Did not the absence of district elections in Israel lead to Oslo and to Wye? As long as Israel operates under this undemocratic electoral system, it will limp from crisis to Jerusalem to Washington, until it disintegrates.

The foregoing remarks omitted by Mowlem, as important as they are, distinguishes Eidelberg’s scholarly work from his very detailed treatise. On Chapter 5 Israel’s Flawed Parliamentary System, pages 98-100 of his book, Jewish Statesmanship, Professor Eidelberg reminds us that when a politician  having been assured of a safe place on his part’s list, does not have to campaign for reelection, he will be “less concerned about public opinion.”

Eidelberg impresses upon readers the importance of district elections in that they are a prerequisite of representative democracy. Understandably, Israel’s single countrywide or at-large elections with fixed party lists insulates the Knesset members from the voters. Fixed party lists tend to transform would-be legislators “into apparatchiks”. Without some form of district elections, “representative democracy is virtually impossible.”

In the Jewish Magazine August 2004 Edition, Paul Eidelberg’s, “Multi-District Elections” provides a convenient summation of his work in the field of Israel’s dysfunctional democracy. In essence, it is about making Israel a democratically responsible country.

Referring to district elections, Eidelberg correctly points to its advantage in diminishing the power of party leaders over their colleagues in the Knesset, so that the latter would be able to exercise more independent judgment vis-a vis government policies. H notes that the Knesset would cease to be a cipher and a stronger Knesset would, in addition, restrain the Supreme Court, which has become a super legislature because of its impotence. Hence, multi-district elections would therefore promote a much needed system of checks and balances as had never been experienced in Israel previously.

One may have the impression that very few have an interest in this extremely important subject. But upon investigation one finds this not to be true. What is elusive is an understanding for the failure. Consider some dates along the trajectory of this rather sad state of affairs.

[1] March 5, 2013 -Jerusalem Post: Is this democracy? by Daniel Tauber. He is an attorney admitted to practice law in New York and Israel.

If a lawmaker doesn’t face the public before whom he and his opponents can present initiatives, defend their records and be judged, then there is no bond between them.

But in all the talk about electoral reform and why it is necessary, one element has been sorely missing. Perhaps that is because it is not an easy truth to admit: Israeli citizens don’t elect representatives and an essential component of democracy is therefore missing.

And government without representation—is that democracy?

[2] March 12, 2019- Israel Hayom: Time for Electoral Reform by Neville Teller.

If there is anything we have learned from the political logjam crippling the government is that Israel’s current electoral system has landed the country in this mess and therefore it is time to seriously consider changing it.

[3] April 7, 2019 -Times of Israel: Agenda Item for the next Knesset: Electoral Reform, by Dov Lipman

The average Israeli has no say about who represents them, and that’s not only a shame, it’s a failure in democracy.——Watching and analyzing these elections as an “outsider has given me the space and objectivity to realize just how badly Israel needs electoral reform. That Israel still functions using essentially the same system as the one established under emergency circumstances in 1948 is absurd; and the failure to make changes and adapt to new realities is hurting our country.

Watching and analyzing these elections as an “outsider” has given me the space and objectivity to realize just how badly Israel needs electoral reform. That Israel still functions using essentially the same system as the one established under emergency circumstances in 1948 is absurd, and the failure to make changes and adapt to new realities is hurting our country.

[4] April, 2020 –  Israel Diaries: Everyone Knows we need Electoral Reform. So——by Sheri Oz.

Without a new electoral system, we will continue to see unrelenting rounds of  elections. Even if, in the end, a government will be formed, it will not be stable and will not be able to adopt or decide on significant legislation, especially not legislation with largely long-term significance. Now there exists the opportunity for taking advantage of the good will that will not soon return. It is incumbent on those representing large blocks of the electorate on both sides to help make this a realty.

[5] April 26, 2021 – Israel Hayom: Is It Time for Israel to Consider Electoral Reform? by Josh Hasten

A recent study showed that two-thirds of the Israeli public believes that the democratic system in Israel is in grave danger. Ironically, a similar proportion considers Israel a good place to live.

[6] April 28, 2021 – Jerusalem Post: Israel’s electoral system is in need of reform – Opinion by Neville Teller.

One major difference between Israel’s electoral system and that of most other Western democracies is the lack of any direct connection between the people who gain a seat in the Knesset and ordinary Israeli voters.

Many nations acknowledge the need for some form of direct voter involvement in choosing their parliamentary representatives. US Representatives and Senators for example, are voted, into Congress by their home constituencies, and remain intimately connected to them.

[7] June 26, 2021 – Jerusalem Post: Something Israel’s government can do—-If the domestic political turmoil of the past two years reveals anything, it is surely that Israel’s current electoral system is far from perfect. [by Neville Teller.]

One major difference between Israel’s electoral system and that of most other Western democracies is the lack of any direct connection between the people who gain a seat in the Knesset and ordinary Israel voters. US Representatives and Senators, for example, are voted into Congress by their home constituencies, and remain intimately connected to them.

The pursuit of justice is core to Jewish tradition. Imagine how revolutionary these ideas were 3,000 years ago and how pertinent they still are. A nation cannot survive without a proper judicial system. Without faith in the justice system, society would descend into utter anarchy.

In our time, we have witnessed untold injustice due to inadequate democracy. It has been demonstrated time and again that Israel’s flawed electoral system is an obstacle to democracy. Likewise, records are available showing the significant numbers of eligible voters, who in disgust, refuse to vote in national elections.

In conclusion, the thoughtful words of Neil Rogachevsky writing in Tablet of January 02, 2020, “Want to Save Israel from yet another Meaningless Election? Change the way  the country votes.” rings true.

About the Author
Alex Rose was born in South Africa in 1935 and lived there until departing for the US in 1977 where he spent 26 years. He is an engineering consultant. For 18 years he was employed by Westinghouse until age 60 whereupon he became self-employed. He was also formerly on the Executive of Americans for a Safe Israel and a founding member of CAMERA, New York (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and today one of the largest media monitoring organizations concerned with accuracy and balanced reporting on Israel). In 2003 he and his wife made Aliyah to Israel and presently reside in Ashkelon.
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