At a press conference to announce their coalition agreement, Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu and incoming Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz articulated four
central goals. They plan to pass legislation that will obligate ultra-Orthodox
yeshiva student to perform military or national service; they hope to pass a
two-year fiscal budget; they want to advance “responsible” peace negotiations
with the Palestinians.
The two men also vowed to advance electoral reform
aimed at fostering political stability.
The incorporation of Kadima to
create the broadest coalition government in Israeli history, with 94 MKs,
presents a unique opportunity. As early as October 1948, just months after the
creation of the state, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, called
to change the electoral system.
About 10 bills calling for regional
elections were presented to the Knesset between 1958 and 1988.
all such attempts at reform were torpedoed by small parties that were members of
consecutive government coalitions – especially religious parties that stood to
lose the most.
These parties presently take advantage of the fundamental
instability and chronic divisions that characterize our extreme proportional
representation government, with its relatively low 2-percent threshold for
election to the Knesset (the Netherlands is one of the few countries with a
lower threshold, at 0.67%).
These sorts of governments tend to encourage
the creation of political parties – such as the Pensioners Party, religious
parties or Shinui – with radical or narrow agendas that represent only a
fraction of the population or have fleeting popularity. Government coalitions
are created by pulling together a patchwork of diverse factions. These
governments are plagued with divisions and instability. In many cases, a single
party can bring down a government, giving it inordinate leveraging power.
Politicians tend to be unknown sycophants willing to tow the party line but who
are unconcerned with representing the voters since their reelection depends on
internal party politics, not personal popularity.
It should come as no
surprise that the average duration of Israeli governments between 2000 and 2009
was less than three years, much shorter than the world average. This has very
bad ramifications for long-term government planning.
Now with a large,
stable coalition, Netanyahu and Mofaz can act where previous political leaders
failed. Neither Netanyahu nor Mofaz is known as a proponent of electoral
reform. And during Tuesday’s press conference, both men were noticeably mum
about the details of the proposed reforms. Also, the deadline set for drafting
the reforms – the end of the year – seems unrealistically optimistic.
the benefits of regional elections, at least for some of the Knesset’s seats,
are clear. Leaders with strong grassroots backing, chosen for their unique
talents, pragmatism and ability to get things done, will be brought into
politics. These men and women will be obligated to represent their constituency,
not the party hacks.
Raising the threshold is another important step that
should be taken.
Until 1996, the two largest political parties combined
consistently had more than 70 Knesset seats. Since 1999, the two largest
political parties have had fewer than half the seats in the
Smaller parties need to be encouraged to join larger parties.
Voters need to be encouraged to choose larger, more mainstream
Another reform that should be considered is increasing the
number of Knesset seats. According to data presented by the Israel Democracy
Institute, the ratio of MKs to citizens in Israel is one to 59,000, higher than
in any comparatively sized European country.
The unprecedented size of
the new government coalition and its consequent stability provides a unique
opportunity to institute much-needed electoral reforms. We hope that Netanyahu
and Mofaz will take advantage of this situation to help ensure that future
governments enjoy similar stability.