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Agenda item for the next Knesset: Electoral reform

The average Israeli has no say about who represents them, and that's not only a shame, it's a failure in democracy
Illustrative: Committee Chairman Amir Ohana and Jewish Home parliament members Nissam Slomiansky vote at the joint Knesset and Constitution Committee meeting discussing the proposed National Law, at the Knesset, on July 17, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: Committee Chairman Amir Ohana and Jewish Home parliament members Nissam Slomiansky vote at the joint Knesset and Constitution Committee meeting discussing the proposed National Law, at the Knesset, on July 17, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sitting out these Knesset elections has been a pleasure. Instead of running around campaigning day and night, I have been able to spend quality time with my family while also working on the issues in Israel that are dear to my heart.

But there has been an additional benefit to my now 11-month hiatus from the political arena. 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.

The changes that are needed can be divided into three primary  categories: regional representation, raising the electoral threshold, and the separation of powers.

David Ben-Gurion broke away from the newly formed “Ma’arach” – which combined his Rafi party with Mapai – in 1968 because of his insistence that the Knesset include regional representatives. The fact that people throughout Israel do not have their own Knesset representation beholden and accountable to them means that the Knesset doesn’t truly represent the will of the people.

When I became an MK, English-speakers throughout Israel bombarded my office with requests for assistance. It didn’t matter whether they voted for my party ­– they finally felt that they had their own representative in the parliament. My staff and I gladly accepted this role even though it did not answer any “accountability to our voters” – we recognized the need to respond to this great demand, even if it was not politically expedient. In the system within our party, I was ultimately only accountable to one person: Yair Lapid, who determined the party list for Knesset (and despite working very hard and getting a lot done, I was let down and left in the same spot as the previous election). Even in parties that have primaries, the MKs are only accountable to a relatively small group of citizens whose support will insure their continued presence on the party list. Thus the average Israeli has zero say regarding who represents them in the Knesset, and that is not only a shame but represents a failure in democracy.

Now imagine an Israel divided into 60 regions in which anyone can run for office. Candidates would have to work to secure the trust and support of would-be constituents, and the winners would be accountable to those constituents throughout their term in order to win re-election. These candidates would not be eligible for ministerial posts since their obligation would be as legislators for their regions, although they would also have clear party affiliation and would enter the coalition or opposition along with their party.

This leads to reform No. 2 – raising the electoral threshold. And this year’s election demonstrates why this reform is so desperately needed.

Out of the now 41 parties in the running, only a handful are comfortably above the threshold, which means that hundreds of thousands of votes will go to waste, without those voters having their voices heard. This is especially true given the fact that over the course of the past month within weeks of the election, there have been seven parties dancing around the 3.25 percent threshold.  This means they may receive tens of thousands of votes but not enter the Knesset.

And those small parties, which do cross the threshold and squeak into the Knesset, will determine who will be the prime minister and what policies his government will have to embrace, despite representing only a fraction of the Israeli electorate. Raising the threshold to 6%, amounting to around eight Knesset seats, will create a political map in which just a few larger parties will be up for election, and smaller parties will not hold a country hostage to its ideology. This will also require candidates running for prime minister to work together with other larger parties to come to a true consensus of the majority, in order to form a government and create a reality of larger, more stable governments.

As part of this reform, candidates running for the 60 regional seats will only be eligible to run as members of one of the parties that served in the previous Knesset. This would prevent smaller parties not beholden to any party structure from challenging the legislative process, while also insuring that citizens have representatives with real power, within the framework of larger parties.

The third reform, regarding the separation of powers, will enable the executive and legislative branches to be more effective. As an MK, I found it impossible to be completely effective in my committee assignments because there was simply not enough time in the day to prepare properly for three committees.

The height of the absurdity took place when my committees were meeting and even voting concurrently. This is largely because MKs who become ministers do not serve in Knesset committees. Requiring MKs who become ministers to cease serving as Knesset members – and thus allow for a parliament in which all 120 members are free to fulfill their legislative duties – will greatly enhance the effectiveness of the MKs and committee work will be done properly. This reform will also mean that more MKs are present for debate and votes in the Knesset, activities that many ministers neglect because of their ministerial responsibilities.

Most importantly, relieving ministers of their Knesset duties will also enable them to be more effective in their ministries. Those who take their Knesset role seriously “waste” hours of their time sitting through marathon Knesset sessions and votes, but allowing them to focus exclusively on their ministerial posts will no doubt free them to become more effective ministers.

Jewish tradition teaches that 70 years is a full life cycle. Israel has reached this age and must be open to new ideas as it begins its second “life cycle.” After elections, I plan on working with MKs to establish a Knesset lobby for electoral reform. I invite anyone who wants to join in this effort to email me at knessetelectoralreform@gmail.com. Together we will raise this issue with all 120 members of the new Knesset, and work to create a healthier Israeli democracy in which citizens have true representation in the parliament, more effective MKs and ministers, and in which the Knesset is truly representing the will of the people.

About the Author
Dov Lipman was elected to the 19th Knesset in January 2013. He is the author of seven books about Judaism and Israel, and holds rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel Rabbinical College and a masters in education from Johns Hopkins University. He has been at the forefront of combating religious extremism in Israel and is a leader in efforts to create Jewish unity both in Israel and around the world. Former MK Lipman is invited to speak on behalf of the Jewish state both in Israel and around the world and serves as a political commentator for i24 News and ILTV.
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