What Democracy?

“But what is guaranteed by law is not always implemented.” –Professor Alan Dershowitz

By way of an introduction, the opening words of Thomas Paine as cited in his “The American Crisis – December 3, 1776 ” comes to mind. “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis , shrink from  the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of men and women. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet, we have the consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

We find in Caroline Glick’s “Israel’s Judicial Tyranny” (Jerusalem Post, November 17, 2005) the recognition that until the judiciary is brought to heel, Israel’s status as a democracy is questionable. Two paragraphs of this important Op-Ed are particularly relevant to what follows.

“…it is important for the long term durability and health of Israeli society for society to be inclusive and for all the various strands of the public to have an actual stake in the future of the state. …the effective disenfranchisement of Israeli citizens and distortion of Israeli politics and law to the point where it is difficult to view Israel as a democracy.”

All of these sicknesses are a direct consequence of an ill conceived form of parliamentary democracy.

Over the years, there have been several serious attempts at correcting this abnormality. In 1987, a recognized scholar, Daniel J. Elazar, had published his particularly significant “Electoral Reform for Israel” piece through the Jerusalem Center for Public affairs. He noted that the urgent need for electoral reform of Israel’s parliamentary system was widely, if not universally recognized.

Further, he recognized that only one avenue could bring about the subject reform – a  democratic “citizens revolt” in the form of a massive campaign of public mobilization. Elazar is of the opinion that what is required is a half million to a million signatures on a petition with a demand for a revision to the electoral system. The intention would be one of  presenting it to the Knesset by 50,000 citizens while marching in Jerusalem. To him, this is the only way to effect a break-down of the present resistance to the given reform on the part of the authorities.

Of course, the process of obtaining that number of signatures would it itself involve a major public effort. But, if such an effort can be mounted, it is expected to have an excellent possibility of success. Although the Israeli establishment tends to be cautious, Elazar has observed that in every case where there has been a massive public outpouring, they and the government have responded rapidly to the pressure. He gives as examples, the response in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War and that which followed the massacres in Beirut and many other less prominent situations.

Further, by way of a commencement, he advocates the need for a public figure who could take the lead and an organization to provide him the necessary proper support and funding. He is also of the belief that the public overwhelmingly supports electoral reform as recorded in the polls, but until now the issue has not been sufficiently important to them to make a real effort to realize change.

Apparently, in the 1970,s, the Democratic Movement for Change made electoral reform a major issue, but failed to move matters along before the party broke up over other issues associated with the first Begin government. According to Daniel Elazar, outside of the Knesset, lobbying for electoral reform was primarily the province of Olim from the English-speaking countries whose experience in the lands of their origin had made them strong supporters of both personal and district elections. The Association of Americans and Canadians and others were active in seeking to mobilize public support for the change. The efforts were not adequate to overcome the resistance of the two major parties who simply paid lip service to  it in their platforms, but nothing to advance it.

Elazar explains how the country would be divided into districts in order to satisfy representative government. The appointment of seats by district would be done by determining how many people each Knesset seat represents, relative to the total population of the country, and comparing that figure with the total population of each district. After allocating seats to the districts in this manner, the remaining seats would be allocated on the basis of major fractions of the required figure, in descending order.

Thus, if the average population per seat is 27,000, a district with a population of 260,000 would initially be allocated 9 seats and would likely receive a tenth on the basis of the 17/27 of the basic figure remaining  not provided for.

“Israel’s Flawed Electoral System: Obstacle to Peace and Democracy” written by Alex Bain in 1987, recognizes that “Electoral reforms that increase accountability and promote governmental cohesion would provide the basis for a more stable and effective system of governance, and help ensure the future of a liberal Jewish state.”

He too, notes that a major problem with the Israeli system is that it discourages accountability and quotes historian Bernard Lewis. “—a significant disadvantage of the present system is that there is no direct relationship between elected members and the electors—-the member is only responsible to the party leadership or, worse to the party bureaucracy.” However, Bain’s paper concerns its less with this issue and more with the problem of threshold values, their attendant problems and politics. In other words, the primary goal of electoral reform to date has been to reduce the number of parties in order to more easily form and maintain a government. Bain’s conclusion, “Nevertheless, there are few short-term prospects for even modest reforms.” is explanation speaks volumes – the many groups with an interest in the status quo give the current system a high institutional inertia.

On December 3, 2008, the Israel  Democracy Institute published an in-depth study on the given topic. Entitled, “District Elections in Israel: Pro and Con” and authored by Nir Atmor, he understands this issue to involve many options, each of which has its positive side, its negative side and implications for the application of political power. More so, it is one that eluded most in the quest for representative government.

Atmor includes comparative international perspectives, surveys the models of district elections that could be adopted in Israel, and explores the pros and cons of each. He even proposes districts for Israel. His study suggests that in general, any discussion on electoral districts must relate to three key issues:

[1] How many constituencies will there be? As stated, the division of  the country into electoral districts is  a geographical demarcation, with the vote total in each district determining the results.

[2] How many constituencies will there be?

[3] Are there tiers?

These three issues are important considerations for the district system. The first two, which refer to the number and size of the districts, are interlinked. The model in which there are as many constituencies as there are legislators is also known as the single-member district model, with one representative for each district (M=1). The tables which follow covers country, population size, number of electoral districts, district magnitude, in order.

Single Member Districts  [SMD]

Country              Population Size              Number of Electoral Districts         District Magnitude [M]

Canada               308                                   308                                                       1

USA                     435                                   435                                   166                    1

India                     543                                   543                                                      1

France                  577                                   577                                                       1

UK                         646                                   646                                                      1

Multi-Member Districts

Chile                      120                                  60                                                         2

Ireland                166                                    42                                                         5-3

Norway               169                                    19                                                         16-3

Finland                200                                    14                                                         33-6

Switzerland        200                                    20                                                          34-1

Spain                   350                                    52                                                          35-1

Sweden               349                                    1+29                                                      34-2

Denmark              179                                   1+19                                                      16-2

Israel                     120                                   1                                                             120

Slovakia                150                                    1                                                            150

Netherlands         150                                   1                                                             150

Many other tables are presented for consideration. Nit Amor  has to be acknowledged for a vast and exhaustive study demonstrating how  Israel can introduce a viable representative government. His concluding remark “What are we trying to achieve?” Apparently  a big zero after 31 years. Shameful is an understatement.

Progressing through time to December 10, 2014, Y-net published Arsen Ostrovsky’s “Israel Needs a Major  Electoral Reform”. As stated by the author, the current system of government may have been appropriate in 1948, when the state was founded, but it is long past its use-by date.” No less than a paradigm change will suffice now in light of myriad of national security and domestic challenges ahead.”

Ostrovsky attempts to cover a vast subject in an extremely well written Op Ed. A few of his observations:

*In Israel’s case, a stable government is not just a goal to aspire to , but an absolute necessity for Israel’s long term future.

* For all the virtues of some progress, the existing system  is utterly dysfunctional and the prime reason for political paralysis.

* The lack of accountability, with individual Knesset members elected based on their position on a party list and not directly by the constituents .

* Insufficient separation of powers between the various government branches, which results in a lack of checks and balances and the absurdity of having MK’s as part of the very legislature tasked with overseeing their own performance.

* Cabinet ministers appointed on the basis of back-room coalition deals, instead of on their skills and expertise in the field.

In conclusion, Arsen Ostrovsky expresses the absolute need for a nationwide grassroots campaign to highlight the importance of change and to raise politician awareness of the need for reform.

A more recent article by Vernon Bogdanor  echoing the same sentiments was published by the Jerusalem Post  as recently as February 22, 2017. Interestingly, “Israel’s Electoral System Needs Reform” emphasizes that “—-members of the Knesset are not well positioned to act mediators between the aggrieved citizen and the bureaucracy.” For correctness he should have used “no desire” rather than “not well positioned.”

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.