Barry Shaw
Barry Shaw

Israel’s Election System is a Form of Political Madness.


Someone described the outcome of the recent Israel election as Bibi and the Seven Dwarfs.

As exit polls gelled into actual results, the Netanyahu magic bolstered sufficient votes for his Likud party to stave off the multiple challenges of a disparate opposition.

The election swirled around a host of politicians, each with a grievance against Netanyahu’s form of dictatorial leadership.

Complaining that the reward for successfully managing their ministries was to be knocked off their perch by a leader jealous of any individual attracting attention by their success. They claim that he demotes anyone whose success appears to outshine Bibi.

The list is long of Bibi’s rivals with injured pride. Lapid, Saar, Ganz. Bennett, Liberman, all claim it was impossible to work under Netanyahu. They now have to decide if they will return to government under a Bibi dictatorship, or band together to bring him down.

That, in essence, is what the March election was all about.

The problem they have of working together to unseat his 14-year leadership is their own egos and ideological divisions that may tend to divide rather than unite them.

This is what Bibi hopes as he sets out to persuade some of the fractured parties to coalesce around his leadership and keep him in power.

Almost forgotten is the dark shadow of a lengthy and very public corruption trial that has already begun.

If Netanyahu manages to retain his leadership, his first personal priority will be to select a justice minister and a new attorney-general to put a spoke in the wheel of the trial process. Netanyahu’s attempts to put the brakes on the legal process that will determine his fate is one important complaint that his rivals and a large section of the public share.

That is one of the reasons why the country is split between the pro and the anti-Bibi sections of Israeli society.

Added to this issue has been Netanyahu’s success, some would say obsession, in subjecting the country into a mass vaccination laboratory for the Pfizer pharmaceutical company.

Half the country herald this as yet another example of Netanyahu’s great leadership skills. They compare his record in vaccinating half the country to other nations the lack of effective anti-Covid leadership.

On the other hand, there have been many people whose lives have been ruined by Bibi’s oppressive and economically damaging lockdowns, and they point to his cynical reversal of policy. After closing its border to prevent infected people from entering the country, Netanyahu reopened the airport to allow tens of thousands of Israelis from pandemic-struck countries to enter the country to vote.

Many expect Covid figures to rise post-election as a result of Bibi’s reckless defiance of his medical advisors. This, his political opponents claim, is typical of his form of leadership.  This is why they left his dictatorial leadership. It is bad, they say, for democracy him to continue. His brand of leadership, they claim, is bad for the country, pointing to his corruption trial as evidence. Others, of course, disagree with them.

That is where a divided Israel stands today.

So where does Israel go right now?

We are now heading into a month of backroom horse trading in which rewards and titles are dangled to attract party leaders to enter, or oppose, a Netanyahu government.

The kingmaker, or breaker, is touted to be Naftali Bennett of the Yemina Party, which is strange because he finished the election with a dwindling seven seat mandate.

The reason for his fall in popularity in the final days of the election was because he did not do what the public wanted him to do. To publicly declare that would not sit in a Bibi government. He refused to make that commitment and he failed to become the top anti-Bibi candidate.

That left Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, as the main opposition candidate, although his numbers melted in the final two days of the election campaign.

A politically fractured Israel is what remains of a democratic country on steroids.

One result of potentially historic proportions was the success of the breakaway Arab Raam party headed by Mansour Abbas.

Prior to the 2020 election, 78% of Israeli Arabs were ready to have their political representatives play an active part in a government coalition but that have been badly served by politicians who see themselves more as Palestinian rearguard representatives rather than active members in the State of Israel.

Now the election success of Abbas’s Islamic party has not only reduced the power of the anti-Israel Arab block in the Knesset but we could see the Islamic Party leader as a minister in a Zionist government, perhaps serving as Minister of Arab Affairs. This would have the benefit of integrating Israel’s Arab population into Israel’s political scene.

His election, however, has muddied the water as to how it’s possible to form a majority government, and what form would it take.

Going forward, it does seem as if Israel has to examine the way it elects its government.

We are very likely on our way to a fifth election in a never-ending series. It is getting tiresome and wastefully expensive.

It is time for Israel to raise the election threshold from 3.25% to 5%, or even 6% in order to reduce the number of parties that make the cut.

In this, the fourth election in two years, Israel had 36 parties registered to run with thirteen parties managing to cross the threshold into the Knesset.

It is time to cut these numbers down.

Israel will never be a two-party system as in America, but Israel would benefit from being a jigsaw puzzle with fewer pieces on the board.

For Israel to avoid becoming another Italy the minimum threshold must be raised to 5% or even more drastically to 6%.

This would lead to small parties gelling together in common cause.  Israel would not be held hostage to politicians with bigger egos than a sense of collective responsibility to the country and its people.

Israel already has a good example of this with the Arab parties. They were once fractured into four separate parties but they united and formed the Joint List and gained 13 seats in the 2015 election. In subsequent elections that number rose to 15. But, In the current election, they fractured with one party breaking away and the result was that the collective Arab Knesset representation dropped dramatically to just six seats with the breakaway party struggling to make the threshold to gain a seventh seat.

In Israel, an elected party has a minimum of four seats. There is no such thing as a party with one, two, or three seats. It’s either four or nothing.

Ignoring and repeating the same mistake over and over again to appease the ego of politicians is a form of political madness.

Israel has to reform its election system and a higher threshold is one solution to stop the expensive cycle of endless elections.

Barry Shaw, Senior Associate at the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

About the Author
Barry Shaw is the Senior Associate for Public Diplomacy at the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. He is also the author of ‘Fighting Hamas, BDS and Anti-Semitism,' '1917. From Palestine to the Land of Israel, 'BDS for IDIOTS,' and his latest work 'A Tale of Love and Destiny,' the dramatic life of a Jewish heroine.
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