After every Israeli election, a brief ripple appears about the flaws in Israel’s electoral process. Since it is the loser that makes this point, few pay much attention. Yet, with elections fast approaching and the results uncertain, Israelis should pause and consider how their electoral process weakens Israel and renders difficult problems unsolvable. Campaigns are exciting. Process is dull. But if Israelis want to understand why their government remains so unresponsive, they need look no further than their ballot. Why should a politician solve a problem when most can’t even identify which voters put them in office? The fact is that, save those of a very few parties, most politicians can’t identify their constituents. No wonder the system so often feels trapped in the mud. Reform won’t solve Israel’s myriad problems, but it will at least make solutions possible.
Israel conducts elections on a list system. Each voter casts a ballot for one of a plethora of parties. Any party that passes a pre-set threshold – 3.25% in this election – gets allotted seats in the legislature (around four seats at that percentage). All 120 seats are thus distributed among the parties that pass the threshold, on percentage basis, from each party’s hierarchical list of candidates. If party X just passes the threshold, its list’s first four candidates get seats. If they win 10%, the first twelve, and so on.
Consider the practical effects of such a system: imagine a hundred eligible Israeli voters, all living in one village. These neighbors can vote for any of an array of parties. Many of these parties could win with the help of these votes, but despite these voters proximity, no politician represents this village as a unit. If these villagers needs new infrastructure, for example, they have no member of Knesset from whom they can expect assistance. Each villager’s vote is thus diluted into oblivion. Now magnify this across the state. With a few exceptions, like the ultra-orthodox and those across the Green Line, most Israeli voters have no connection with those they help elect beyond their ballot. To politicians, their voters are mere abstractions. And abstractions have no power.
Like most bad systems, Israel’s voting method once made sense. The Zionist enterprise began as a highly factional movement. Given this factional diversity – religious, ethnic, economic, to say nothing of political – in the pre-state and early state period, a big tent ensured every faction a voice in government. Yet almost seven-decades later, the system mostly just frustrates the majority. And when a controlling party fails to deliver, as they invariably do, voters simply opt for minority parties instead of supporting the opposition. This diffusion only compounds the problem, further diluting each voter’s influence. More often than not, these minority parties similarly can’t identify who they represent. Worse still, if they represent a small faction, this just further pull the attention of the governing coalition away from the needs of the majority of Israelis towards a particular narrow slice of the population. Moreover, since every party’s voters are an abstraction, few politicians really ever answer to their electorate. Instead, they answer to a diffuse abstraction, which means in reality they answer to no one at all.
In most democracies, savvy politicians focus on the issues voters think most pressing. From the current campaign, you might think the issue most pressing to Israelis was Iran or perhaps the Palestinians. You’d be wrong. When asked to rank their top issue, 43% of likely Israeli voters chose the economy. And it wasn’t even close: Iran, the Palestinians, and regional instability combined were most important for only 35% of voters. So why then does Iran and Abbas get so much more airtime than an acute housing crisis or average Israelis being unable to make ends meet? The answer is simple: no elected official ever has to face his or her voters and explain why the price of milk keeps rising or why their newly married kids can’t find an affordable flat. Save for a few parties – Orthodox Jewish and Arab parties for example – politicians can’t even identify which voters put them in office.
That last point is particularly crucial. In Israel’s highly factionalized society, the election process only heightens factionalism. Most politicians don’t know who elected them, but as already mentioned, a crucial few politicians know all too well. Everyone knows what those few politicians want as compensation for their support. What does that mean in practical terms? When it comes to funding for yeshivas, a group of identifiable politicians fight and fight for their constituents. These few politicians are held accountable. The rest are not. The narrow few become advantaged over the broad majority.
So who represents average, hardworking Israelis who want more housing, better wages, or a lower cost of living? Nobody. What politicians worries about the high unemployment or crumbling infrastructure in a given neighborhood? With few exceptions, none. Since each politician can be elected by voters scattered across Israel, most are answerable to no voters in particular. No surprise then that politicians want to talk about security policy: if you can’t really identify your constituency, what is the point of discussing domestic issues? Even a party established to address economic issues, such as Lapid’s Yesh Atid, can’t really deliver. And Lapid controlled the Finance Ministry, the ideal perch from which to impact these issues, and still achieved precious little. Vast swaths of Israelis, indeed the majority remain, in a real sense, unrepresented. Voiceless.
Is there a path out of this sand trap? Fortunately, there is. The only question is whether politicians elected under such a status quo can be brave enough to radically alter the system that put them in office. Practically speaking, that is a lot to expect of any politician, let alone a legislative majority. In my next column, I will address some options for creating a more responsive political system. To go from strength to strength, Israel needs to cast off a failed election system that no longer serves the interests of the majority of Israelis. In place of a ripple, Israel needs a wave demanding change.