When they formed a national-unity government, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Shaul Mofaz promised to work on four issues: equalizing the burden of IDF service, passing a fair budget, responsibly advancing the peace process and making the electoral system more stable.
The attention in the Knesset is now on the first issue. The committee led by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner held its first meeting with great fanfare on Monday. As challenging as it will be to find an alternative for how to draft yeshiva students, the Supreme Court’s decision requiring a new solution will force everyone involved to compromise.
Passing a new budget will also be difficult, but as long as all the ministers kvetch about it equally, it should not pose too much of a problem.
The Palestinians’ refusal to negotiate makes the peace process the easiest of the four issues for the new government.
That leaves one issue that is the riskiest undertaking of them all: Taking an electoral system that encourages instability and fine-tuning it in a way that pleases all coalition partners.
Enter Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who Netanyahu appointed to fix the problem. Katz is a political bulldozer who knows how to get things done.
He learned the political trade as an adviser to former prime minister Ariel Sharon and is now among the ministers Netanyahu trusts the most. He is also a hawk who opposes a Palestinian state and has used his ministry to plan trains in Judea and Samaria and roads for Jews in Hebron.
In an interview at his Jerusalem office, Katz said he would focus on four practical changes that he and Netanyahu believe can be advanced quickly and will make a significant difference: Raising the electoral threshold, increasing the number of MKs needed to pass a vote of no-confidence in the government, limiting the number of ministers and enacting direct, regional elections for part of the Knesset.
Katz said he would recommend implementing all four in stages, but as the coalition agreement states, the changes would have to already begin with the next election.
“We can accomplish this and have it take effect immediately with the next government, which would be able to last four years,” Katz said. “This will make ministers’ decision-making more strategic and professional and far less political.” Currently, parties need to receive at least two percent of the votes cast on Election Day in order to enter the Knesset with three seats. Katz would up that threshold to 2.5, which would make the smallest faction four seats.
Eventually he wants it to be three or four percent. “Raising the threshold will require small factions to unite,” Katz said. “The religious-Zionist parties to the Right of Likud would have to run together to avoid the risk that one of them would not cross the threshold and would waste votes. Uniting could also make the Arab parties less extreme.”
In the past, the two parties most opposed to making this change were United Torah Judaism and Shas. But the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population has grown enough to make the change no longer a risk for UTJ. And Shas chairman Eli Yishai has apparently become more open to making the change since a party being formed by his rival, Aryeh Deri, has teetered on the current threshold.
Currently, 61 MKs can topple a government with a constructive no-confidence motion in which all 61 unite behind an alternative candidate for prime minister. Katz would raise this number to 65 to encourage stability.
“A failed government could still be toppled, but in general, governments would last four years and ministers would be able to get a lot more done,” he said.
When Netanyahu was prime minister the first time, he appointed only 18 ministers, which earned him brief praise but made him enemies. His current government, with 30 ministers, has been much more stable but inevitably wasteful.
Katz wants to set the limit at 23, which he said would send an important message. There would be no more phenomena like Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Independence faction, which has five MKs and four ministers.
The biggest change Katz recommends is to enact direct, regional elections for part of the Knesset. He believes this would gradually stabilize the system because regionally elected MKs would represent the largest parties with the backing of several smaller ones.
“You cannot make such a move in one step because it could harm parties representing certain sectors,” he said. “I would do it little by little, starting with electing 10 to 20% of the Knesset that way. Then the MKs elected that way would lobby for the new system until it is used to elect half the Knesset.”
Katz was unfamiliar with the word “constituency,” and even had trouble pronouncing it, but once he understood what it was, he said it was important that such a concept exist in Israel.
The party most against regional elections has been Yisrael Beytenu, but Katz is confident that its party leader, Avigdor Liberman, could be convinced to accept them if it is made clear that the Likud would support Yisrael Beytenu candidates in some districts. While Labor has supported the change in the past, new Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich opposes it.
The party that could benefit most from such a system is Kadima, whose MKs have good name recognition. For instance, MK Ze’ev Bielski, who is a former Ra’anana mayor, would have a good chance of getting elected to represent the city.
One possible option is for the 61 MKs of Likud, Kadima and Independence to pass an electoral reform proposal and then go to immediate elections. In such a scenario, Katz would drop the idea of doing it in stages and instead already elect half the next Knesset regionally.
“If we do this at the last minute with Kadima, we can forget about the stages and make a drastic change,” he said. “If you want to do things for the good of the country, you do it and go to elections.”
Asked if the new system could strengthen Netanyahu inside the Likud, Katz said reports of the prime minister’s woes in the party following an embarrassing Likud convention three weeks ago have been exaggerated. The chairman of the party’s governing secretariat, Katz said that after Netanyahu won the January Likud leadership race with 77% of the vote, his leadership cannot be questioned.
Nevertheless, if some of the Likud’s MKs are elected regionally and not in primaries, it is possible that Netanyahu can use the new system to get some allies elected who could balance out hawks loyal to far-right party activist Moshe Feiglin.
Katz said it is the strength of Netanyahu, who Time Magazine crowned “King of Israel” this week, that could enable him to make changes in the electoral system that his predecessors wish they could have made.
“David Ben-Gurion wanted to enact regional elections but the political system did not let him,” Katz recalled. “There is a chance for Bibi to do what even Ben- Gurion could not do. That would be a great accomplishment.”