Can Israel’s Electoral System Be Fixed?

By | Jan 18, 2013
2009 May-June, Israel

His fellow committee members were Yitzhak Gruenbaum, a fiery Polish-born journalist and politician affiliated with the liberal, free-market-oriented General Zionist Party; and Pinchas Rosen, a German immigrant who founded the New Aliyah Party in 1942 and later joined the centrist Progressive Party. As members of small parties, the natural beneficiaries of the pre-state system, Gruenbaum and Rosen were less interested in the British system. In fact, they were disinclined to push for change at all.

The 1948 War was a boon to the small party representatives. With battles raging, a consensus emerged that the only viable choice was to preserve the existing system. “The opponents of district elections [including Rosen and Gruenbaum] clearly had their hidden agenda,” says Asa-El, but “there really was a diplomatic need to hold an election with no delay.” David Bar-Rav-Hai, chairman of the election committee at the time, said that creating a new system would have required “complicated preparations” and thus would have been “impossible to carry out within a short period of time.”

Elections for the constitutional convention were held in January 1949. But in February, Ben-Gurion decided to hold off on a constitution—“he had to prioritize his objectives,” says Doron—and the convention declared itself Israel’s first Knesset. Mapai won 46 out of 120 seats, and the United Religious Front—a group of religious parties that would become his main coalition partner—16. The Religious Front opposed the idea of a constitution and thereby the establishment of a permanent electoral system. “They said they had a constitution already: the Bible,” says Doron. And like the other small parties, they weren’t keen on changing the electoral system at their own expense.

While Ben-Gurion was prepared to temporarily forego a constitution for the sake of national unity, he was determined to change the electoral process at any price. “I do not think that the appearance of 21 competing [party] lists in the Knesset elections in this little country of six or seven hundred thousand inhabitants is the expression of democracy or social maturity,” he told the Knesset in 1949. “As a Jew, I am ashamed of this sick phenomenon.”

As Ben-Gurion saw it, the small parties not only inhibited his ability to govern; without their support—which would have required their willfully relinquishing power—reforms would be virtually impossible to pass. In effect, they had him in a stranglehold.

Try as he might, Ben-Gurion couldn’t break free from their grip. A 1954 effort to raise the minimum threshold—thereby limiting the number of parties in government—and switch to a British-style system drew little support, and the pre-state electoral system was enshrined in what are called Israel’s Basic Laws. In 1964, following his second dramatic resignation, Ben-Gurion considered forming a broad-based party focused solely on electoral reform, but backed out when his Mapai colleague Levi Eshkol, the reigning prime minister, assured several small parties that he would block any attempts at reform. A year later, Ben-Gurion broke away from Mapai to form Rafi—one of its central aims was electoral reform—but his efforts were thwarted once again.

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