Gideon Rahat
Gideon Rahat
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How can Israel prevent an eternal merry-go-round of elections?

The right electoral reforms should lead fairly easily to a stable government and budget
Casting a ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset elections, on March 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Casting a ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset elections, on March 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

What if I told you that had Israel adopted several reforms proposed in recent years, it would now be a country with a stable government and a state budget? Without a fourth election, without a political imbroglio, and without long-term caretaker governments. All of this would hold true even if the public remained split down the middle (between the pro-Bibi and anti-Bibi camps, for example), and the “tribal” divisions in the preferences, lifestyles, values, and interests among various groups in Israeli society continued to exist.

Yes, this indeed could be the case, had Israel introduced reforms in the electoral system and revised the rules for forming its government.

Let me explain: different political systems translate the public’s preferences in different ways, forming a coalition and a government based on them. In this way, they provide different incentives for different behaviors by both politicians and voters.

Take, for example, an idea that has been promoted for decades, principally by the Israel Democracy Institute: That is, that the head of the largest Knesset faction should automatically become prime minister, with no need to win a vote of investiture. It is true that he or she would have to form a majority coalition to advance policy objectives (or at least enjoy external support to enact legislation, in the case of a minority coalition); and it would still be possible to call early elections or replace the government without elections by a vote of 61 MKS or more that would support an alternative government (The constructive vote of no confidence that Israel adopted in 2014). However, in this situation, it would be legitimate for the candidate to establish a government on the basis of having received the support of a significant segment of the voting public.

In addition, parties would find it easier to join the coalition or at least to grant it conditional support from the outside. Furthermore, this rule would encourage politicians to put together joint electoral lists, and perhaps — united parties before the elections — rather than afterwards. Candidates for prime minister would want to attract other groups to increase their prospects of emerging as the leading vote-getter on election day. The public, too, knowing that the head of the largest list would become prime minister, would tend to cast their vote for the large parties, in order to enhance their leaders’ prospects; this would significantly reduce the fragmentation of the Israeli political map.

Here is another idea: this time, to change the electoral system. Almost every reform that has been proposed includes the adoption of constituencies. Instead of Israel being, in effect, a single countrywide district that elects 120 representatives, there would be several districts, each allocated the number of Knesset members in proportion to its population. This would create pressure to form large lists and parties and to vote for them, because parties would require relatively broad support in order to win in a district (in a 10-member constituency, for example, they would have to receive about 10 percent of the vote to win a Knesset seat, far above the current electoral threshold). To ensure that they would be truly national — rather than regional — parties, the law could require each list to present candidates for election in every district and make state funding of campaigns contingent on their receiving a defined minimum level of support in each district.

These are the good ideas. There are also a number of proposals that, however incredible it might seem in our current situation, would probably make things even worse. One of these is to return to the direct election of the prime minister, separate from the Knesset. This would erode the large parties even more and foster the emergence of sectorial lists, because voters, just as they did in 1996 and even more so in 1999, would split their votes between a candidate for prime minister and a sectorial party. The same applies to abandoning the parliamentary system, which has proven itself over many years in Israel and the world over, in favor of the presidential system, which has often fallen down the slippery slope to an authoritarian regime. Another bad idea is the first-past-the-post system employed in Great Britain, which can convert a plurality vote (sometimes only slightly more than one-third of voters) into a parliamentary majority.

We can only hope that something good will emerge from the current mess, and that the coalition formed in the coming weeks — or, perish the thought, after another election — will focus on changes that will strengthen Israeli democracy and restore the possibility of consensus. Precisely today, when the Knesset is composed of 13 parliamentary groups (and about 19 parties) with very different and even incompatible worldviews on most issues, consensus on the need to reform the system could be the glue that holds them together. Even if the glue dried up quickly (as it surely would), we would know that the next Knesset election would have a very good chance of producing a stable and functioning government.

About the Author
Prof. Gideon Rahat is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor in the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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