Throughout Israel’s constitutional logjam it has been difficult to see the wood for the trees. The trees that have been blocking the view are the political maneuverings of the main protagonists. Many, if not most, voters believe that some form of unity government was well within the grasp of either Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz, if either – or, indeed, if Avidgor Liberman – had deigned to compromise. Their rigid red lines, however, proved too powerful a disincentive to do that. As a result the national interest, which is crying out for a return to effective government, has suffered
The wood, hidden from view by these burgeoning trees, is the fact that it is Israel’s current electoral system which has landed the country in this mess. The way governments are elected is in urgent need of reconsideration and reform.
What are its obvious weaknesses? To anyone nurtured in the bosom of US or UK democracy, the most obvious problem is that Israeli general elections do not return a majority party but require weeks of intensive back-room negotiations before a government can be formed, and that sometimes these negotiations fail to deliver. Having failed twice, what assurance is there that a third general election would yield a different outcome?
Israel’s system presupposes that all governments will be coalitions. But no immutable law states that democratic governments must be coalitions. The normal result of general elections in the UK and the US is that one or other of the two main parties is returned to power with a working majority and subsequently forms a government. Neither require weeks of sometimes unsavory wheeling and dealing following elections.
When the Israeli electorate go to the polls, they are asked to choose the one party among the many competing – sometimes 30 or more – with whose policies they most agree. The number of seats that each party gains in the Knesset is almost exactly proportional to the number of votes the party obtains in the general election. That is a democratic plus.
The downside is that inevitably the nation’s vote is fractured. No one party can emerge as the outright winner. Hence the back-room trading and bargaining. Concessions are demanded by the smaller parties in return for their support. The policies finally agreed between the cobbled-together majority can be far from the policies any elector voted for.
A considerable additional weakness in the current arrangements is the total lack of personal engagement between members of the Knesset and the people. MKs gain their seats because of their position on their party lists. In the US, citizens know who the two senators representing their State is, just as they know by name the individual who represents their constituency in Congress.
The UK is divided into 650 constituencies, each of which returns one member of Parliament (MP) in a first-past-the-post voting system. Once elected that MP is deemed to represent all the voters in the constituency, and any of them with a problem would look to “their” MP for help. Every voter therefore has a direct personal link with an MP, whether that MP is a backbencher or a minister – even the prime minister.
The main disadvantage of first-past-the-post is that seats in parliament do not match the national voting pattern. Candidates can and do win a seat having gained far less than 50 percent of the votes in their constituency. The system produces large majorities but a democratic deficit.
Proposals to reform Israel’s electoral system by combining the constituency concept with proportionality have been put forward on several occasions. The last attempt, in 1988, proposed that Israel be divided into 60 constituencies, each of which would elect one MK, while another 60 would be elected by the current system. We would all vote for both a candidate and a list. The proposal foundered.
Back in 2005, President Moshe Katsav set up a commission to examine constitutional issues including the electoral system. It met regularly for more than a year, and it too finally favored a combined system although with a different constituency structure. The commission’s recommendations, like earlier attempts at electoral reform, were not followed up. Nor indeed were subsequent efforts, like those of Professor Menahem Ben-Sasson in 2006.
This is a nettle that must be grasped. The dire events of 2019 point in no other direction. Electoral reform simply must be a major element in the political program of Israel’s next government, whenever it is formed.