(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For at least six years, there has been a majority in the Knesset for changing
the country’s electoral system and adopting direct, regional elections for half
of the parliament.
Such a system, which is used in Germany, would combine
the strengths of Israel’s party-list proportional representation, and the
American concepts of accountability and constituencies that politicians would be
required to serve.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government formed
a committee led by one of the ministers closest to him to seek a consensus in
his coalition on electoral reforms. Well-respected figures like former Mossad
chief Meir Dagan and charismatic former anchorman Yair Lapid are leading new
movements pushing for changes in the system.
So why are Israelis still
stuck with the same electoral system that they love to complain about? And will
it ever be changed? The answer to the first question is a bit of a Catch-22. The
flaws in the electoral system are difficult to fix because of – you guessed it –
the flaws in the electoral system.
Israel developed a multi-party
political system because its founders had different fears than the founders of
the United States did.
The Americans were afraid of tyranny following
years of British colonialism, so they formed a system of checks and balances
among executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
contrast, the founders of the Jewish state were afraid of something entirely
different: disenfranchisement of minorities. Following 1,878 years of enduring
discrimination under the rule of foreign powers in the Land of Israel and in
Diaspora communities around the world, Israel’s founders wanted to make sure
that all citizens would have a party that could represent them in the
No one party has ever won a majority of the 120 Knesset
seats, so ruling parties have had to cater to smaller niche factions to build
the coalition necessary to govern. To find favor with those parties, Labor,
Likud and Kadima have made more and more concessions over time.
the most significant concessions was a pledge that is written in every coalition
agreement when every new government is formed. It requires a consensus of every
coalition party for changes in the Basic Law, the legislation that lays the
foundation for a constitution that has never been written and may never
Altering the electoral system requires amending the Basic Law, so any
coalition partner could veto such changes. As long as there is any party in the
coalition that opposes direct, regional elections, they will not be
The main party blocking such a change is Shas, which has used
the current system to give itself disproportionate power and would suffer
significant harm if direct, regional elections were adopted. Shas has been part
of every recent government except for 2003-2006, when prime minister Ariel
Sharon left the party out of the coalition.
Shas’s presence in the
current coalition makes it impossible to approve direct, regional elections and
other electoral reforms that the party vetoed when Ehud Olmert was prime
minister. Shas also opposes raising the 2-percent electoral threshold and
automatically giving the leader of the largest party the first chance at forming
When Netanyahu formed his coalition, it was important to
him to include parties on both the Right and Left. He wanted Ehud Barak by his
side so he could show the world that his government represented a consensus of
Israelis, and not just the Right. And he insisted on including what he called
the Likud’s “natural partners,” one of which was Shas.
polls show Netanyahu winning the next election by a landslide. But while it is
considered a foregone conclusion that the man forming the next government will
be the same, it cannot be taken for granted that the coalition he builds will be
Netanyahu will be under a lot of pressure to form a
national-unity government after the next election. That would require bringing
either Kadima or Labor into the coalition.
The huge gap between the
capitalist Netanyahu and socialist Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich on
socioeconomic issues could make Kadima a more attractive partner this time
Kadima has recently joined a wave of anti-haredi (ultra-Orthodox)
sentiment that proliferated following reports of haredim spitting on little
girls and screaming at women soldiers to go to the back of buses. There are also
voices in the Likud saying that the party must take action to force more haredim
to serve in the IDF.
In such a political climate, it would be hard for
Netanyahu to justify bringing Shas into his next coalition. Netanyahu has stood
up to Shas before. After all, he was the finance minister in Sharon’s Shas-less
government who cut benefits for yeshiva students and changed the system of child
welfare benefits that until then would escalate for every child a family
Shas is expected to lose half of its support in the next
election, because its charismatic former leader, Arye Deri, intends to form a
new party. There is also another factor that could destroy Shas overnight: Its
rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, is 91 years old and will not live
Two-thirds of Shas’s voters are not ultra- Orthodox, but
traditional or secular Jews who have a lot of respect for Yosef. When the rabbi
goes, he has no replacement.
While Shas officials refuse to discuss
publicly what will happen when Yosef is no longer around, privately when asked
such a question, they point to the picture on the wall in their offices. They
point out that it was a picture on the wall that replaced the Lubavitcher Rebbe,
and since then, Chabad has done better than it did when its rebbe
Can Shas follow that successful model? No one knows.
But it is clear that whenever Shas’s support dramatically falls, it will be much
easier for the prime minister to make a lot of changes that the party has
blocked until now, including changes in the electoral system like enacting
direct, regional elections.
THERE ARE other parties that make it harder
to change the electoral system as well. Yisrael Beytenu wants a presidential
system modeled after the US, and even though there is nothing close to a
majority for such a drastic change, the party’s representatives oppose other
electoral reforms. Yisrael Beytenu MK David Rotem heads the Knesset Law
Committee, which deals with electoral reforms, and he has blocked making any
changes in the system.
Ehud Barak’s Independence Party is split on
electoral reform. Barak has called the current electoral system “the harshest
disease that causes all the problems that have been on the public agenda.”
However, his faction chairwoman, MK Einat Wilf, believes the Israeli electoral
system is the best in the world, or at least the best possible system for
Nevertheless, every poll has predicted that Barak’s party will
not pass the threshold in the next election. And even Yisrael Beytenu’s future
is in doubt due to the legal problems of its leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor
But attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein said this week that if
Netanyahu initiates elections, the Liberman investigation will be put on hold
until after the race.
Netanyahu has sounded determined to initiate
electoral reforms eventually. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who heads
the committee Netanyahu appointed, has said he would push for raising the
electoral threshold, limiting the number of ministers and deputy ministers, and
requiring a special majority for no-confidence motions.
“There is no
dispute about the need to change the electoral system,” Katz said. “The goal of
changing the system is not to help one party or another, but to guarantee
stability to all future governments. We must change the system to enable Israel
to deal with the challenges ahead, make critical decisions and implement them.”