Reform or Die by Hagai Segal

‘The essence of the problem of legislating for electoral reform [in Israel] is that the surgeon is also the patient’
Vernon Bogdanor’s comment written in the early 1990s is as accurate today as it was then. Another Israeli election has passed and another deeply unsatisfactory political picture has emerged. The Israeli public has spoken: the party that won most seats is not in government, it has taken two months for the government to be formed, and that government is a tense marriage between Right, Far-Right and Centre-Left. Anyone aquainted with Israel’s political history will not be surprised.

The current electoral system was introduced during the pre-state Yishuv — the government-in-waiting of the future state of Israel — and it was designed to be as simple and representative as possible, allowing for formal representation to the many diverse groups that made up Mandate Palestine’s Zionist community in order to ensure unity in the movement. It was never intended to be Israel’s permanent electoral system.

Faced with far more pressing problems than the seemingly mundane matter of how to conduct its elections — war, enemies intent on its destruction, integrating hundreds of thousands of immigrants, building the new state, etc. — Israel ‘temporarily’ continued with the system. And it has been stuck with it ever since.
Israeli national parliamentary elections are conducted under a form of Proportional Representation, one of the variants of what is known as the Party List System. Each party submits a list of up to 120 names — the total number of seats in the Knesset, the unicameral national legislature — which are elected nationwide (Israel being one single electoral district). Following an election, Knesset seats are distributed as per the order on the lists — if party ‘A’ receive five seats, the individuals listed one to five on their list are elected to the Knesset.

The leader of the party deemed most likely to be able to form a government is invited to do so by the (otherwise ceremonial) State President. If they are not able to, within the timeframe allotted, another party can be offered the opportunity to form the government instead. The leader of the party who succeeds in forming a government becomes Prime Minister. The only regulating factor in the virtually unimpeded translation of votes into seats is the Threshold, a bar that has to be passed before a party can be eligible to win a seat.

Until the elections for 13th Knesset (1992) the Threshold was one per cent, and during the 16th Knesset (elected 2003) it was increased from 1.5 per cent to two per cent. This is one of the lowest in existence in any PR system — with countries like Turkey placing it at 10 per cent, and with one as high as 20-25 per cent in Eire — which has proven increasingly significant to Israel’s political fortunes as the decades have passed.

The role a regulating mechanism like the Threshold plays in such a system is vital, with its size having a huge bearing on the ability of parties to win seats.  Where the Threshold is low, small parties have an opportunity to secure parliamentary representation, and thus many participate; when the Threshold is high, only parties with higher levels of public support have a chance to win seats, and therefore fewer parties participate. The Threshold also influences possibly the single most important function of any electoral mechanism: the ability for a government to emerge from an election. When the Threshold is low the chances of a clear winner are low, for it is most unusual in modern democracy for a party to win over 50 per cent of the national vote, and coalitions become inevitable. However, when the Threshold is high the chances of a clear winner increase significantly: votes of parties failing to pass the Threshold are either discarded or redistributed, meaning that a party winning less than half the seats can secure more than half of the seats.

So, thanks to Israel’s tiny Threshold, and its ‘Cultural Melting Pot’ sociological realities, every single government to date has been a coalition. fifteen parties have won seats in two elections, while amazingly there have been seven parties in a single government. Consequently, the smaller parties in the Knesset hold power disproportionate to their limited public support and Knesset seats, for the system makes them the kingmakers as coalitions cannot be made without them. Political blackmail inevitably develops. The party forming the government has to pay a heavy, heavy price for the smaller parties’ inclusion in the coalition, handing over key ministries and agreeing to drop policies they support, or support ones they don’t. And there is such wide-scale horse-trading and deal making, a culture of corruption can also all too easily develop.

Not surprisingly considering this reality, from early in the system’s history there have been those advocating radical reform — yet it has proven time and again to be a case of easier said than done. Israel’s visionary first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion tried, breaking away from his own Labour bloc in 1965 after the realities of the system had become to be all too self-evident, and he pushed  for urgent electoral reform. He led a breakaway of eight members of Knesset from Mapai, the ruling party he had led for so long (and the precursor of the Israel Labour Party). Rafi (List of Israeli Workers) only managed to secure 10 seats in the election later the same year, were unable to apply pressure on Mapai to support reform, and were to eventually merge back into the Labour bloc with the formation of the Alignment three years later. Major electoral reform has not been a Labour policy priority since.
By the late-1970s reform was back on the political agenda: in 1977 the Democratic Movement for Change (DMC) won a significant 15 seats, a very high return for a new party, and entered the Likud government later in the year in return for promises in regards to electoral reform. This reform never got off the ground however, and the DMC never contested another election.

By the 1990s it had become clear that attempts to move away from the Party List System or to increase the Threshold significantly were just too difficult to achieve, such was the stranglehold the small parties had over Israeli political life. So an entirely different approach was taken, with the direct election of the Prime Minister being introduced for the 1996 General Election. The Knesset vote was left as before (though with the Threshold upped from to 1.5 to 2 per cent), with a second vote added so that that the PM would now have a direct mandate from the people. This, the larger parties hoped, would strengthen their hand, for small parties would now have less blackmail potential as no one would be in any doubt who would be forming the next government.

The change, however, achieved the exact opposite effect.  The public now did not have to vote Labour or Likud if they wanted them to form the government — they just had to vote for their leader in the new vote for the Prime Minister. Overnight Labour and Likud’s amount of seats plummeted, making it even harder for them to form a government, giving small and medium-sized parties even more power! The direct election of the PM was thus quickly abolished, and Israel went back to the old system! But voter behaviour did not revert, and the ‘big’ parties continue to this day to receive middling numbers of Knesset seats. Labour won the 1992 election with 44 seats, yet the highest number of seats received by a party in 2009 was a mere 28, less than half the amount required to form a government. The 2009 poll highlights all too clearly just how entrenched these problems now are: before the result had even been declared it was clear that no one could win. Whether Likud or Kadima won the most seats, both were going to have to form a multiple-party coalition, almost certainly with at least one party opposed to some of their core policies. For the first time in Israeli history the party that has won the most seats was not the one invited to form the government, and had to do so with just 27 of the 120 Knesset seats.  The election thus stimulated much eye-rolling and expressions of disillusionment across Israeli society, politics and the media.
Yossi Verter wrote in Ha’aretz: ‘Only Israel’s version of democracy could come up with the largest political bloc being comprised of … right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties at the same time that the largest political party (Kadima) is the one leading the centre-left camp.’ Meanwhile, in another influential daily, newspaper Ma’ariv, Ben Kaspit wailed: ‘Woe unto this government, woe unto Israel … because of the system; because of the stalemate; because of the dead end.’

Some might consider it sensationalist, if not risible, to suggest that Israel’s electoral mechanics pose as great a threat to Israel as an Iranian nuclear bomb, Hamas or Hezbollah, but I am going to make just such a point without even a hint of exaggeration or irony. For while the Irans and the Hamases of this world pose a specific short and medium-term existential threat to Israel and its physical stability, failure to address the growing crisis that is the country’s political quagmire may pose the greatest long-term threat to Israel’s social and political stability and cohesion. For a country that goes for decades without a secure and strong government, where subsequent administrations are a cobbling together of disparate elements constantly watching their own backs, where no government can implement their core policies, and where the public go to the polls every couple of years, is a country that is rapidly losing its social and political viability.

Modern political history, and especially the history of democratic governance, has taught us that a country that lacks genuine governmental and structural stability can all too rapidly cease to be a country at all.
All too many examples — Weimar Republic Germany, the former Yugoslavia, most poignantly the experience of Israel’s northern neighbour Lebanon, — demonstrate that when political instability becomes permanent political reality, and when social tensions become permanent social conflicts, a state can implode. Signs of such a potential implosion in Israel can  already be glimpsed. For the failures of the system — combined with the fall in public confidence in its politicians following the plethora of high-profile corruption, sleaze and even sexual misconduct allegations made against some of the country’s most senior politicians — are increasing producing a disconnect between the governors and the governed. Israelis are becoming ever more detached from politics — as stated in the 2008 Israeli Democratic Index, published by the Israel Democracy Institute, ‘The Israeli public is drawing away, at times in disgust, from the political establishment.’ History again tells us that when this occurs it becomes increasingly likely that elements on the periphery of society and politics will seek to attain their aims outside of the established system, i.e. civil disobedience, or even violence or terrorism, can all too rapidly become commonplace.
Recent examples suggest this is already starting to happening. The last year has seen Jewish-Arab tensions and rioting in Acre, and there were major tensions and some unrest in Um al Fahem (the largest Arab town in Israel) during and after the recent election, signs of growing tensions within the Israeli-Arab population. And there was a massive increase in attacks by West Bank Israeli settlers in 2008 from 2007 — on both Palestinians and Israeli soldiers deployed in the area — with 2009 threatening to be even higher. Increasingly, social, ethnic and religious groups feeling politically and sociologically disenfranchised are looking outside of the political and legal frameworks to achieve their aims.

And this is the only logical argument against significant radical reform of the system — that by curtailing small-party representation minority elements, minority elements become alienated, in particular the Arab and ultra-orthodox sectors, the two quickest growing in the state. This, some argue, could cause equal levels, if not more unrest and violence, a factor to certainly keep in mind if any radical reforms are ever seriously considered.
Despite this objection there can be no doubt that the system as it stands is too representative, guaranteeing power to the small parties while, as a consequence, denying the largest ones the ability to form strong or stable government. Whereas such a system can rightly be seen as a true democracy fully representing the cultural and ethnic melting-pot that is Israeli society, this comes at the expense of the vital traits of strength and stability.
With three major parties now in the mix, and a whole set of middle-sized ones now too, electoral mathematics seem fixed in a hugely problematic place. The largest party is not winning and will not be winning more than half of the seats in the Knesset, which is a recipe for a future of four and five-party mishmash coalitions, governmental inertia and ineffectiveness, and far too frequent elections.

Reform — real and radical reform — has thus never been more urgently required. Finding a solution to the problem is a lot more complex that assessing the faults of the current one. Reform of such an entrenched system — and deciding which specific reforms to push for — is of course a challenge, as proven by the fact that some of the world’s leading experts advised Israel to introduce the direct election of the PM, which made matters worse, not better. Nevertheless, numerous possible reforms could make a real difference, so long as the proportionality versus governability balance is redressed, and the small-party blackmail factor consigned to the dustbin of history.
Take one option, for example, that could bring the necessary improvements while also allowing minorities and interest groups to still secure parliamentary representation and thus ensure they don’t feel disenfranchised and seek their objectives outside of the system. A modified version of the German electoral mechanism, could be adapted by combining both PR and the (British-style) first past the post system (FPTP). (The Bundestag has 598 members, 299 elected in single-seat constituencies via a FPTP vote, with the other 299 allocated from state-wide party lists via a vote conducted under a PR mechanism called the Additional Member System.) Such an approach has the potential to achieve some of the benefits of both systems: clear and stable government is much more likely to emerge (and without the need for four or five parties in a coalition), yet small parties can still win some seats.
It would not of course be apposite to adopt an exact copy of the German system — Germany has both constituencies and a two-chamber parliament while Israel does not (nor must it) — but there is no reason why a variant, taking into account Israel’s particular political and social realities and challenges, could not be forged.
The latest poll should have finally alerted Israel’s leaders to the true predicament of their politics, and convinced them to put their party-political differences aside and save Israel from its own, self-made and impending political degradation and erosion.

Without a sea change in the prevailing political mindset, such reform will not be forthcoming since Labour and Likud (and no doubt now Kadima) have historically second-guessed themselves, panicking that any reform would be of more benefit to the other than to themselves, and so a ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’ mentality has set in. There is thus little or no appetite within the major parties for it. They seem resigned to being forever stuck in Israel’s Electoral Catch-22. Sadly, we are still dealing with politicians consumed with the day-to-day challenges of this most volatile and uncertain of political realities, and so ‘the bigger picture’ will continue to be ignored. Attention surrounding the recent poll and its consequences has already died down and will not again be a prominent issue until the next disastrous electoral experience … by which I mean the next election that takes place in Israel.

Israeli politics has already gone back to business as (ab)normal.

Hagai M. Segal lectures in Near and Middle-Eastern Politics at New York University in London.

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1 Comment
  1. Zev says

    This article is very relevant to the political system in Israel and the way that it has been corruptly manipulated in more ways then one. Despite the plethora of political parties in Israel there seems to be a serious lack of check and balances (as well as personal accountability) in the current Israeli system. One of the basic changes that Israel needs regardless if they should go to single member district system or not (such as the German system)is that they should require a two third majority vote in the Knesset to be able to ratify any kind of peace treaty so as to represent the people and to provide a needed review of the terms of the said treaty. For example notice the way the Oslo Accords were implemented with out first holding Knesset hearings and a thorough review of the provisions in the accords. Instead it they negotiated in secret and then signed by the late Prime Minister Rabin and Yasir Arafat as a fait accompli and only then was the Knesset given the option to vote on it. The Oslo Accords had proven to be a disaster and to this day the state of Israel had dearly paid the price in both blood and money for that irresponsible treaty that the Arabs never honored or took seriously and yet Israel is still being asked to continue making dangerous concession to the PA while they never had lived to the Oslo accords which they had signed and was foisted on the Israeli public.
    As for reforming the political system in Israel, I would strongly recommend reading the book “Jewish Statesmanship Lest Israel Fall” by Professor Paul Eidelberg where he outlines what needs to be done to make Israel into an effective and accountable Jewish Democracy.
    Zev Post C

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