Can Israel’s Electoral System Be Fixed?

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

In 2008, members of Labor and Likud co-sponsored an ambitious bill written by the Kadima Party’s Menachem Ben Sasson based on the commission’s recommendations. It was backed by three of the Knesset’s four largest parties—only Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu did not endorse the bill. But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had granted veto power over changes to the Basic Law to the parties in his coalition. Shas promised to employ its veto, and the bill was shelved.

By the time of the election this February, support for electoral reform had reached a fever pitch. “Today,” says Yuval Lipkin, a Kadima member and the head of CECI, “everybody understands that the political structure is not good.” Indeed, a recent CECI poll found that more than 60 percent of Israelis support the adoption of reform in line with the Commission’s plan. “If we do regional elections we’ll have two or three parties [in the coalition],” adds Lipkin. “This is the only way we can have stability.”

Kadima reintroduced its electoral reform bill on the first day of the new Knesset, late in February. But at the time, Netanyahu was scrambling to form a coalition. Rather than risk alienating Shas or Yisrael Beiteinu, whose support he would need, Likud chose to nix the bill. Gideon Sa’ar, a leading Likud figure and one of the bill’s sponsors, laid the blame on the usual suspects. Shas, says Lipkin, “understands that they’ll have a problem with the new system.”

Even if change can be pushed through, it’s unclear what it could achieve. Asher Arian, a fellow at the Israeli Democracy Institute, one of the earliest think tanks to agitate for electoral reform, points out that electoral reform in other countries has been unsuccessful. Italy, he says, which historically used a near-proportional electoral system and has been plagued by unstable governments, has enacted several major reforms. “They haven’t managed to solve their problems,” he says. “What this suggests is that the problem is not in the mechanism. The problem is in the issues facing the political system and/or the behavior of the individuals in the system.”

Arian believes that change needs to occur incrementally. “Introducing districts will give people a stronger sense of connection to the system,” he says, and ensure that Knesset members are responsive to their constituents. “A reform that says the party that gets the largest vote will be the one who will form the government will help, and perhaps raising the minimum requirement to three or four percent will help, too.”

Still, Arian worries that the hype around electoral reform is motivated by a belief that it will cause the country’s major problems to disappear. “I think it’s looking for a magical potion,” he says. Changing the system “will not make the Palestinians Zionists.”

Gideon Doron, on the other hand, attributes “most of the problems in Israel” to the country’s political system. But he questions whether anything can be done to change it. “We are working very hard for reform, but I don’t think there will be a chance until there is a major crisis,” he says. “Like Lenin said, ‘it will get worse before it gets better.’” Until then, he says, the issue will stand alongside Iran and the global economic crisis as one of the “existential threats” to Israel.

Doron’s analysis is shared by many American Jews who favor a two-state solution. Daniel Gordis, the vice president of the Shalem Center in Israel, suggests that the focus on electoral reform among American Jews is in some ways a reflection of their naively optimistic outlook. “Americans really believe that all conflicts have a solution,” he says. “If you say that the Palestinians simply don’t want to make peace, then there is no solution. So, they reason, the problem must be the political system. I think there’s an attempt here to give them some vestige of hope to hold on to without making the problem seem completely insolvable.”

Gordis also believes that American Jews want Israel to model its political system on that of the United States. “They are very proud of their democracy,” he says, “and Americans who are looking to be proud of Israel think, if only Israel functioned more like America.” David Ben-Gurion, for his part, looked to Britain, not the United States, and he came up empty-handed. Whether or not the American or any other model proves easier to emulate, the challenge remains formidable. Those who believe that reform is possible may take comfort in Ben-Gurion’s famous words: “In Israel,” he said, “in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”

Jeremy Gillick is Moment’s Rabbi Harold S. White Fellow. His most recent article for Moment, “An Israeli Prescription for American Health Care,” was in the March/April issue.

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