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How can we reform Israel's electoral system?

Once, it was Italy that was famed for multiple ever-changing governments. But since 2019, it is Israel that leads the democratic world in political dysfunctionality.

By MARK REGEV Published: SEPTEMBER 29, 2022

During my time as an Israeli diplomat abroad, I repeated ad nauseam the truism that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. But as Israelis go to the polls again on November 1, one could rightfully ask whether a fifth Knesset election in four and a half years is not too much democracy?

Once, it was Italy that was famed for multiple ever-changing governments. But since 2019, it is Israel that leads the democratic world in political dysfunctionality.

Other democracies have fought tight elections, yet their electoral systems produce clear winners, with stable governments following thereafter.

In the famous 1960 US presidential cliffhanger, Democrat John Kennedy had only a minuscule advantage over Republican Richard Nixon in the popular vote, 49.7% to 49.6%. Although Nixon carried more states, the electoral college gave the Democrat a clear majority, Kennedy’s 303 electors to Nixon’s 219, and JFK took the White House.

The British Westminster parliamentary system has a similar tendency to produce a conclusive outcome. The 2019 elections had Boris Johnson’s Conservatives leading Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the popular vote 43.6% to 32.1%. But the Tories, though not winning a majority of the popular vote, achieved local victories in most constituencies across the UK, giving the Conservatives a near record 365 MPs and a massive parliamentary majority.

Under Israel’s system of proportional representation, the above would have produced either a hung parliament or a coalition government. Without exception, all Israeli governments have required a coalition, proportional representation almost guaranteeing that no single party can ever by itself hold a Knesset majority.

Israel needs electoral reform

Israelis have been talking about the need for electoral reform for decades. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, became a prominent advocate for changing our system, but even this once all-powerful political leader failed to push through any significant reform.

When Ben-Gurion broke away from Mapai (Labor) in 1965 and established the Rafi list, electoral reform was at the top of the new party’s agenda. However, Rafi received just 10 MKs and was condemned to the opposition benches. Although the party entered the national unity government of prime minister Levi Eshkol in the lead-up to the 1967 Six Day War, by then the cause of electoral reform had been effectively sidelined.

The 1977 elections that brought Menachem Begin’s Likud to power saw the issue of electoral reform return to center stage. The Democratic Movement for Change, headed by the former IDF chief of staff and renowned archaeologist Yigal Yadin, championed cleaning up Israeli politics and instituting far-reaching changes to the electoral system. But Begin succeeded in forming his government without the participation of the DMC’s 15 MKs, and when the party later joined the ruling coalition, electoral reform received mere lip service.

Nonetheless, changes did occur regarding the electoral threshold. It was once possible to enter the Knesset with just 1% of the popular vote. For example, in the elections to the first Knesset in 1949, three parties were each represented by a single MK – a list of former Lehi underground fighters, the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), and an ethnic party of Yemeni Jews.

Over the years, the cutoff point was gradually raised, to 1.5% in 1992, to 2% in 2004, and to the current 3.25% in 2014. This means that today the smaller parties can totter between four MKs and zero representation, with no intermediate possibility.

THE MOST serious electoral reform ever attempted in Israel turned out to be a colossal failure. In 1996, for the first time, Israelis directly voted for a prime minister (in the way presidents are chosen in other countries), in addition to voting a party slate for the Knesset. The reform, replicating the way Israelis elect mayors in local government, aimed to enhance the authority of the directly elected prime minister and reduce the political power of the small parties.

Instead, the opposite happened. Giving the public two parallel ballots allowed Israelis to split their vote, with many choosing a Knesset list from one party and a prime minister from another. Consequently, the two largest parties, Labor and Likud, saw their parliamentary representation shrink in favor of the minor parties, generating additional political instability. The reform was abolished in 2001 and Israelis returned to voting with a single ballot.

To Jerusalem Post readers who would have Israel adopt either the American or British model, a word of caution: comprehensive electoral reform can have unintended consequences, as the direct election for prime minister fiasco has proven. Two proposals that tweak the existing system are therefore probably safer.

First, we could give the leader of the largest party the sole right to form the government (on the way denying Israel’s ceremonial president one of his few powers of office). Such a reform would incentivize Israelis to give up voting for boutique parties and get behind one of the larger ones, doing the exact opposite of the previous direct election reform.

In the current political reality, such a change could be seen as favoring the Likud, but it is not necessarily so. In the 2009 elections, Kadima received 28 MKs to the Likud’s 27. Under such a reform, Tzipi Livni would have become prime minister rather than Benjamin Netanyahu. It was the same in the elections of September 2019, when Blue and White received 33 MKs to the Likud’s 32, and Benny Gantz would have formed the government.

In the extraordinary circumstances of a dead heat, as happened in the elections of April 2019, when both Likud and Blue and White each received an identical 35 MKs, the prime minister would be the party leader who received the larger popular vote. In this case, it would have been Netanyahu, who got 26.46% to Gantz’s 26.13% (a greater margin of victory than Kennedy’s over Nixon in 1960).

Second, why not adopt a practice once used in Greece, by which the largest party in parliament automatically receives a bonus, say an extra 10 MKs? This would further incentivize voting for a large party and allow for a more stable coalition majority.

Of course, a Knesset elected under the current system has an inherent interest in perpetuating existing arrangements – the smaller parties having no desire to voluntarily relinquish power to their larger sisters. But without reform, Israel could continue to lead the democratic world in chronic political instability, and it is high time we allowed someone else to enjoy that “honor.”

Published Originally in The Jerusalem Post

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