The Return of British Mandate

On November 2nd each year we commemorate the Balfour Declaration. This is the historic document which paved the way towards establishing a national home for the Jewish people. Britain then got a mandate from the League of Nations to govern until 1948 (the year of Israel’s independence).

I’m not writing this piece as a historic analysis but would like to put that in context with upcoming elections. Now, I won’t pretend like Netanyahu that I saw British soldiers in Israel (Netanyahu made that claim, although he was born in 1949 a year after the British mandate ended). But what I know is that even in 2015 ,in Israeli politics, the seats that a party wins at elections are still called ‘mandates’. Old habits die hard.

So why did I name it ‘Return of British Mandate’? It’s not because Israel needs a foreign government or a House of Lords, but because Israel do need to look at the electoral system in the UK and take note. While there are some in the UK who wish for PR (Proportional Representation), I can tell you that looking from the UK, I think that Israel needs to introduce FPTP (First-Past-The-Post) – the system where the winner takes it all.

This system means that the whole country is divided into geographic constituencies , and the member of parliament in each constituency is elected by its constituents. The system ensures governability as voters think twice whether to vote for a candidate who has no chance of getting elected and opt for ‘tactical voting’ sometimes to try and keep a rival party out, but more than that it delivers accountability (if you don’t do your job as MP or if you’re corrupt, then you will not get elected again). Its critics say that it preserves the 2 big party system and prevent smaller parties from entering parliament. Also others say the system is open to deliberate gerrymandering.

The system in Israel is of PR where the whole country is one big constituency and Israeli voters are voting for a party. Most of them have no idea who are most of the candidates of the party they are voting for, they never met or spoke to them and they can’t scrutinise them (unless they are party members). The result is a lot of small-medium parties and MKs who are not accountable for the voters.

Currently the lists for the Knesset are selected by party members in some parties (Labor, Meretz), by central committee members in Likud, or decided by party leader (Yesh Atid) and the public can’t influence who they are electing. Think about what will happen if the local party branch selects the local candidate, and then this candidate will actually need to canvass and work very hard to gain the trust of the voters in his constituency. Sounds utopian? this is the reality in the UK parliamentary system. Those who wish to become MPs need first of all to work hard to convince their party to select them, and then work even harder to get elected.

While changing the system in Israel to complete FPTP system is a radical step and is not on the agenda in Israel and we can be sure that the smaller parties will object it, there is a need to overhaul the system in Israel by introducing regional constituencies. Further increase of threshold percentage is an option suggested by others but it will not bring accountability from MKs.

Israelis are often complaining that many MKs are corrupt, they are out of touch with reality and that they don’t represent them. Rather than not voting, what Israelies should campaign for is to change the current system to ensure that MKs are accountable to the voters , as should be in every democracy. As British colonists said in the 18th century in America: ‘No Taxation without representation’.

Although I struggle to see a scenario where an Israeli MKs will address each other as ‘honourable member’, I do hope we could see in future 120 constituencies in the Knesset. This will help bring back trust in politicians and empower the public to scrutinise the work of their direct representatives.

About the Author
Tal Ofer is a former parliamentary researcher and now Deputy at the Board of Deputies of British Jews. He actively fights antisemitism and delegitimisation of Israel. In Summer 2014 he masterminded a campaign to target Tricycle Theater donors, which led to reverse of boycott of UK Jewish Film Festival.
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