One man can make a difference

The given heading is attributed to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis with the suffix quote “and every man should try.” Tragically, this seems to have eluded the entire present day Knesset membership. Nor has one other piece of wisdom; ” Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result” [Professor Albert Einstein].

Not only did the Knesset use the identical electoral format 3 times obtaining a negative consequence, but are even contemplating a 4th attempt with no revision. And still, not a single voice calling for electoral reform preceding the 4th election attempt.

Moshe Dann writing in the Jerusalem Post of November 9, 2019 asks the pertinent question, “Is Israel a Democracy?” He answers that it essentially is, except that there are major flaws in its political and electoral systems. In this, he points to the fact that votes of parties that do not pass the threshold are discarded, and members of Knesset are not accountable to voters. In other words, Israel suffers from having a parliamentary system of democracy as opposed to a representative democracy.

Interestingly, Moshe Dann feels that this explains why so many Israelis [roughly one-third] don’t bother to vote. In recent times, surprisingly, we have observed that this includes right wing “settlers”. His observation is that Israeli elections are meaningless because they are more about personalities, rather than policies, superficial and not substantial.

He rightfully observed that the politicians who become ministers are usually not experts in the subject of their position and thus have to rely on an experienced staff. At the time of writing, Dann considered the real government to be run by the “deep state” bureaucrats by way of directors general of ministries and professionals, who provide continuity and expertise, but are unaccountable.

Now, in a true democracy, institutions are meant to serve the people and provide cohesion. This is the very basis of national identity and national unity. Given that Israeli voters have no direct access to Knesset members, they mostly have little or no way of exercising any influence in the proceedings, thus denying the very fabric of representative democracy.

Almost akin to a prophet, Moshe Dann stated, “As long as Israel’s flawed system exists, elections will end in stalemates, preventing stability and undermining national cohesion.” Time and again, the failure to form a ruling coalition, which represents a majority of voters, is obviously the fault of Israel’s political system. Consider, in brief, past history:

[a] What facilitated the infamous Oslo Accords [1993-1995]? At the time Yitzhak Rabin was the PM of a Labor Party-led minority coalition. By bribing two MKs from the right-wing opposition, a single vote. Israel’s warped judicial and legal system did not even protest this highly unethical, if not illegal act. Despite the Likud winning the 1996 election, PM Netanyahu could not revise the Oslo Accords signed and implemented by Rabin.
[b] Ehud Barak became the PM of a 1999Labor-led coalition. As a measure of its worth, two years later Arafat unleashed the most violent terrorist attacks in Israel’s then history, known as the “Second Intifada.” The result – 1,000 Israeli lives and numerous more maimed and wounded. In 2001, Ariel Sharon’s Likud succeeded in defeating it in an election.
[c] In 2005, Sharon literally crossed the Knesset floor to facilitate his unsavory plan of unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and 4 Jewish communities in Samaria. Without any electoral process, he was able to form the Kadima Party supported by the labor Party.
[d] Sharon died in 2006 and was replaced by Ehud Olmert. Under his watch, Kadima won the next election. With the 1st Lebanese War, the party declined. Olmert was convicted of corruption and imprisoned in 2014, the party terminated in 2015, all symptomatic of compromise and corruption.

Moshe Dann very wisely recommended the formation of a Knesset committee to engage in electoral reform. This could take the form of open sessions, followed by publication in the media. The Knesset could implement changes, thus revitalizing Israel’s democracy. Of course, he acknowledged that it was overdue and proposed immediate commencement. Why did this not happen?

In addition, Dann draws attention to Professor Paul Eidelberg’s ACPR Policy Paper #79, “Making Votes Count: They Don’t in Israel”, which provides a plan for comprehensive reform.

A topical article on representative democracy appeared in Tablet of Jan. 02, 2020 appropriately entitled, “Want to Save Israel From Yet Another Meaningless Election? Change the Way the Country Votes” and is authored by Neil Rogachevsky. He rightfully commences with proclaiming that it’s time to do away with proportional representation.

In explaining Israel’s parliamentary democracy, Rogachevsky points to the core idea in the allocation of power or seats in direct proportion to the absolute number of ballots received. At the end of the day, the politicians who will be elected, are not accountable to any voter. The number of representatives each party obtains is simply determined by the absolute vote. Not only that, members of each party are only accountable to their party leaders. Clearly, the system results in “weak, chaotic or non-existing government” as we are now experiencing.

Neil Rogachevsky observes PM Netanyahu, whose true passion has always been economic reform, having to concentrate on national defense in order to appease coalition parties. This and needing to surrender religion to Haredi parties and economics to the populist parties is “hardly a recipe for unified, intelligent, coherent government.”

The current crisis in Israel is fed largely by its dysfunctional system. Consider the 1st two 2019 elections, voters overwhelmingly selected “parties of the right” [included in the orbit of Blue and White] over “parties of the left”. Apart from Netanyahu’s trials and tribulations, the primary reason for his inability to form a government, was not having enough of the “left” inclusive seats, the consequence being deadlock and paralysis.

Difficulty in establishing the necessary electoral reform is simply because the bureaucrats and major party leaders are reluctant to be “robbed” of some of their power. Probably, this applies to mot Knesset members. In addition, the smaller parties would label this as “anti-democratic”.

Rogachevsky displays a full understanding of the complete scenario as he observes the largest advantage of the subject reform to be in the public interest. Israelis would be spared the unhealthy drama of frequent elections. Further, strong, confident, more effective governments could be established for a considerable tenure of time.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, having lived in the US for many years surely knows the difference. Today, he shares the pain of the extraordinary chaos, having to face a disastrous largely unanticipated virus, without an effective government.

Neil Rogachevsky correctly observes the current paralysis in Israel to be “a clear danger to the long-term health of Israel” and calls for an urgent push for the identified reforms.”Israel’s political system is broken, so fix it” appeared in GLOBES on 23 Dec. 2019. Written by Dr. Norman Bailey, who displays his disgust in a caustic piece, which covers the subject in few words. His commencement statement speaks volumes. “Term limits for heads of government and electoral districts are just two vitally needed reforms”.

Realizing that at this painful junction it would be impossible to engage in the total much needed reforms, Bailey proposes at least 2 reforms of the present anarchic structure as being absolutely essential. One is to limit the prime minister to 2 consecutive terms of 4 or 5 years each. The other is to have the members of the Knesset elected by electoral district.

The Middle East Policy Brief #32 dated February 2011 covers “Israel’s Flawed Electoral System” by Alex Bain.

Bain commences his essay with the recognition that Israeli politics is notable for its wide array of parties and unstable coalition governments. He points to the main institutional cause of this chronic instability as the system of nationwide proportional representation, which gives disproportionate influence to minor parties. In this, he recognizes the limitation on the ability of Israeli governments to pursue coherent long-term strategies, resulting in policies that address the concerns of minority groups at the expense of the national interest.

Perhaps, more importantly, the major problem with the Israeli system is that it discourages accountability. Alex Bain’s quote from famous historian Bernard Lewis represents the most important understanding of the Israeli governments sickness; “—a significant disadvantage of the present system is that there is no direct relationship between the elected members and the electors—-the member is only responsible to the party leadership or, worse still, to the party bureaucracy.”

This conclusion is supported by the findings of the 2005 “Report of the President of Israel’s Commission for Examination of the Structure of Governance in Israel”

Surprisingly, on 3/12/2008, Nir Atmor of the Israel Democracy Institute discussed the importance of a vital component of representative democracy viz. District Elections. His paper is entitled, “District Elections in Israel: Pro and Con”. He discusses many options, evaluating what he terms, good points and bad points; and implications for the allocation of political power. This most useful article, includes a comparative international perspective, surveying the models of district elections that Israel could adopt, while exploring the pros and cons of each.

Some scholars regard the manner of drawing district boundaries, as the most important parameter of an electoral system – even more significant than the formula for allotting seats in the legislature [Cox 1997; Taagepera and Shugart 1989].

In Israel, the entire country is a single electoral district that returns 120 representatives. Other countries are positioned somewhere between these 2 poles, when it comes to electoral districts.

In general, any discussion, of electoral districts must relate to 3 key issues:
[1] How many constituencies will there be?
[2] How many representatives are returned by each district?
[3] Are there tiers?

While these 3 issues are important considerations for the district system, for the purpose of this paper, we shall limit our evaluation to Israel and the US. Israel is a country with no districts, so that all the members of the legislature are elected on a nationwide basis. In Israel, every list that runs in the elections is entitled to a number of seats in the Knesset proportional to its nationwide strength on condition that it passes on the established threshold.

Atmor has prepared a table of some of the leading democracies and how they are divided into single member districts using the plurality of 1st- past- the- post system to determine the winner. In this model, the country is divided into the same number as districts as there are seats in the legislature. In each district, the candidate who wins the largest number of votes wins the seat in the legislature.

The US falls within the single member districts whereas Israel falls within the multi-member districts. The Us population size is given as 435 and that of Israel is 120. Thus, the US has 435 electoral districts while Israel has 1. By way of a suggested guide, Nir Atmor has prepared a table for Israel based on proposed electoral districts, number of citizens with rights to vote, number of seats, comparing groups of 120, 90, 80 and 60. The writer disagrees with this and feels that only 120 should be entertained following the US model. This should not be difficult to implement given the Israeli acceptance of the US in most instances.

A comprehensive discourse on the given subject can be found in Kohelet’s Policy Paper #30 , January 2017: Improving the Accountability and Stability of Israel’s Political System: A Detailed Proposal for a Feasible Electoral Reform by Abraham Diskin and Emmanuel Navon.

Indeed there is no limit to the number of plans available for guidance. However, even in this crucial juncture in the history of the Knesset, is there one individual who can “make a difference” in not only broaching the subject, but be obsessive about driving it to a logical conclusion? This should obviously occur prior to another election.

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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