Can Israel’s Electoral System Be Fixed?

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

As long as Mapai, later Labor, was the dominant party, winning around 40 percent of the vote, Israel’s electoral system worked reasonably well. “Mapai was ruling quite comfortably with the religious parties and that was stable,” says Doron. But disgust at government corruption on the heels of the 1967 war changed Israel’s political landscape, ushering in a strong and dynamic opposition. When the right-wing Likud party, led by former Irgun leader Menachem Begin, burst onto the scene in 1977, stability was undermined.

Under Israel’s Basic Laws, the party that won the most Knesset seats was not guaranteed the prime minister position. The result was that the individual deemed by the smaller parties as most capable of forming a coalition won. Instead of devolving into a two-party system, as Ben-Gurion had once hoped, the smaller parties became kingmakers in Israeli politics.

Ten electoral reform bills were introduced between 1958 and 1988 and, according to Azure’s Asa-El, were shot down by religious parties. The 1984 attempt came closest: Likud and Labor together gained about two thirds of the Knesset’s 120 seats; because neither could form a coalition, they agreed to share power in a national unity government. Many members of both parties agreed to reform the electoral system in order to prevent the sort of near-paralysis that the election had caused. But, as Asa-El writes, the religious parties “threatened to sever all ties with the Likud once and for all should the party support electoral reform,” and the Likud members quickly backed down.

In 1985, responding to growing public outrage, Uriel Reichman, then the dean of Tel Aviv University’s law school, started a campaign to create an Israeli constitution, warning that Israel was “on a track to suicide.” One of his suggestions, that Israelis should vote for prime ministers directly, was adopted in 1992 (along with a motion to raise the minimum threshold from 1.5 to 2 percent), and implemented in 1996. Intended to give the prime minister more power in the coalition-building process, the move backfired.

The reform prompted the electorate to split its vote between a prime minister and a party that often had a narrow agenda. The big parties began to disintegrate. In 1996, the largest, Likud, won a mere 34 seats—the fewest in Israeli history to that point—and in 1999, Labor won the election with only 26. Together, Likud and Labor controlled 45 out of 120 seats. “What we had in ’96 and ’99 was sectarian politics,” says Doron, who opposed the reforms. Starting in 1996, he says, citizens voted increasingly along cultural and religious lines, making it “very difficult to form a coalition and to rule.” Widely acknowledged to have been a failure, the reforms were abolished.

Proponents of change may have suffered a major setback, but their cause continued to gain steam. In 2003, Isaac Parviz Nazarian, an Iranian-born businessman based in Los Angeles, founded the Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI) to promote electoral reform. It was one of several recent American initiatives “to save the Israelis from themselves,” says Doron, and it paved the way for the creation of the Commission for the Examination of the Structure of Government (the President’s Commission) in 2005. Led by Menachem Magidor, president of Hebrew University, the commission recommended that half of the Knesset’s members be elected regionally, that the cabinet’s size be limited to 18 and that the minimum threshold be raised to 2.5 percent.

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