David Newman
Views on the Borderline

Revisiting Electoral Reform

Two expensive elections within the space of five months. Whatever poll you look at, the overall picture indicates that it is not going to be any easier to form a 61 majority coalition government this time round, than it was five months ago. If there is to be any change it may be that the unification of the smallest parties will bring about a Knesset with fewer parties and more medium sized parties (even though there is always the danger they will break up into smaller factions after they have been elected). But this does not significantly change the bigger picture and it may well be left to Avigdor Lieberman and his medium sized party to be either the king maker or the king destroyer.

When we were faced with constitutional crises like this back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, there was much discussion about the need to reform the Israeli electoral system.  It was generally accepted that the high level of proportionality which exists within the Israeli system, a characteristic which is to be admired compared to many other systems in the Western world, needs to be sacrificed in order to achieve a greater degree of stability and a move towards fewer, but larger, umbrella parties which cover a range of social, economic and political views.

Unite on what draws them together rather than splinter and fragment on the minor issues which divide them – and which the Israeli electoral system enables and, to a certain extent, even encourages.

At the time, the then President Haim Herzog was an active supporter of electoral reform. Think tanks, and academics  proposed a range of alternative electoral systems and some proposals were even discussed by the Knesset Law Committee. But at the end  of the day, and with the single exception of direct elections of Prime Minister which took place over a period of three elections during the late 1990’s, no reform was ever implemented  – at least no reform which would drastically change the way politics was, and continues to be, done in Israel.

Early proposals were in favour of mixed electoral systems which are common in most democracies, and were adopted by almost all of the countries in eastern Europe and which were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Mixed systems require some of the elected officials to come from constituencies (electoral districts) so as to represent local and regional interests, with the remainder coming from  national lists – such as is practiced in Israel today for the entire electorate. There was a lot of debate concerning the intricate details.  One proposal was for sixty-sixty, another proposal was for eight-forty in favour of constituency members,   due to the overriding importance of regional representation which does not occur within Israel. There was also much debate as to whether candidates could hedge their bets and be on both regional and national lists, or whether they would have to take a risk and choose up front.  Shimon Peres opted for the former.  But at the end of the day, the proposals were all rejected at an early stage and they were never taken any further.

In one area however,  a significant reform has indeed taken place and this has had a major impact, albeit not far enough, on todays electoral outcome. For almost forty years, the lower threshold required for any party list to gain entry to the Knesset was as low as one percent.  This resulted in the election of extremely small factions of 2 seats which, in some  cases, cold hold governments to ransom if the latter was dependent on these small factions for the magical 61  majority. During the past thirty years, the lower threshold has risen, first to 2 percent and now to 3.25 percent – which means that any party passing the threshold will have a minimum of four seats in the Knesset. – still a relatively low number but nevertheless significantly higher than previous.

Smaller parties which did not learn this lesson of this change were made to pay the cost. In the most recent election, some of the Arab factions refused to create a united slate, while the New Right party of Naftali Benet and Ayelet Shaked also failed to pass the lower threshold. Both have learnt from this bitter experience and are now part of broader united party lists, which will now guarantee their entry into the Knesset as part of a larger faction.  The lower threshold , which can be changed quite easily by a Knesset vote, probably needs to be raised even more to six or seven percent, resulting in fewer but larger parties, but not so large that sectoral interests, be they religious or be they Arab, do not have any representation providing they get their act together. Recent politics shows that the most sophisticated players of this game are the orthodox parties ,  Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael.

Another reform which was implemented for a short period of time was the direct elections of Prime Minister. Voters were given two votes, one for Prime Minister and a separate one for the party of his / her choice. This was based on an assumption – as has been recorded in other countries – that most people would automatically vote for the same party as they did for the leader. The elected leader would have  greater power and legitimacy, while the system would move towards a  two party political system. Three prime Ministers – Netanyahu (first time round), Barak and Sharon – were voted into power in this way. The only problem was that the Israeli electorate decided to use their second vote to vote for another party, thus causing even greater fragmentation of the system and making it even more difficult, rather than easier, for the elected Prime Minister to get his 61 coalition together.  And unlike the American system, where the directly elected President has executive powers for which he does not always require the approval of the Senate or the House of Representatives, under the Israeli version a Prime Minister was still a member of the Knesset and still required a majority government for all major decisions.

The Knesset in its wisdom decided to revert back to the old system. But here too a significant change was inserted. If, in the past, it was possible to vote a government out of power (a vote of confidence or no confidence) with the smallest of majorities sitting late at night in the Knesset chamber, it now required at least 61 members bring a government down and call for new elections. This is the major reason why recent governments have lasted that bit longer than those of the 70’s 80’s and 90’s, and explains why the outgoing government (prior to Aprils elections) had stayed in power for almost an entire term of four years.

It is time  to once again rethink possible electoral reform for Israel. It is perhaps not so surprising that the topic has not emerged in the past few months, given the fact that politicians have learnt one hard lesson – changing the system also brings about a different way of choosing candidates which means that by approving a new system of elections, they could well be voting themselves out of power – and no politician will opt for this scenario of personal self destruction.

Real electoral reform needs to be determined by  a non-parliamentary, neutral committee of experts who have no personal interests in becoming members of the Knesset and, to the extent that it is possible, do not lean strongly to the right or the left, to the religious or the secular. And if that is impossible to achieve in Israel, it requires a balance of political views and opinions joined together in a common objective, namely to achieve greater government stability where the victorious parties and their leaders can spend four to five years focusing entirely on the country’s social, political, security, religious, economic and education problems , rather than expending fifty percent of their time and efforts in putting out coalition fires in an attempt to  retain the government’s slender majority.

The new government, if and when it actually takes its place any time in the foreseeable future, should agree to set up such a committee, chaired by the President or a Supreme Court Judge, and composed of a small group of experts in constitutional law, who have an  understanding of the unique characteristics of Israeli society which have also to be taken into account. It is time  that Israel, with its advanced economy, technology and educational systems, can also be proud of its electoral and governmental systems, rather than appear in the eyes of the world,, as it often does, as a place for where political turmoil and an inability to govern smoothly, is the norm.

About the Author
David Newman is professor of Geopolitics in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Originally from the UK, he was awarded the OBE in 2013 for promoting scientific links between the UK and Israel. From 2010-2016, Newman was Dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at BGU. His three distinct, and vastly different, areas of expertise cover Border Studies, Israeli Politics and Society, and Anglo Jewish history of the 19th and 20th centuries.
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