The right electoral reform

Lieberman's proposal to revoke Israeli Arabs' citizenship is being treated as an unserious curiosity.

By
October 12, 2006 00:58
3 minute read.
Avigdor Lieberman Israel Beiteinu 298.88

Avigdor Lieberman 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

In politics, as in anything else, it is best not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The converse is also true: when taking on new partners, better to welcome the baby and leave the bathwater behind. Such is the case with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's courting of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party. The baby is the idea of electoral reform; the bathwater is Lieberman's specific reform proposals, not to mention his plans for redrawing our national borders. Though Lieberman is famed for his blatantly undemocratic proposal to strip many Israeli Arabs of their citizenship and hand their cities over to a Palestinian state, this aspect of his platform is being treated as an unserious curiosity. Even Labor seems willing to ignore this proposal in order to "stabilize" the coalition, and Lieberman himself is not insisting on it. Regarding electoral reform, some of the proposals are silly and populist. One suggestion is to require the prime minister to appoint non-politicians to head the top three ministries - Defense, Finance, and Foreign. But the law already allows the prime minister to appoint non-MKs as ministers; forcing such appointments pretends that top government posts can or should be isolated from the agenda of the elected leadership. Politics cannot be neatly extracted from democracy. We elect a government to represent us, and if it does so incompetently - whether by way of politicians or "experts" - we can elect a new one. There is no structural panacea to poor decision making. In this respect, the critics who say that electoral reform has little to do with the war that seems to have precipitated it are right. But in any case electoral reform is necessary and any impetus to bring it about is welcome. Reform is urgent because confidence in our political system is low and sinking. We do not take our electoral system for granted, as in most democracies; on the contrary, we assume that we have not yet arrived at our permanent system of government. Just a decade ago our system was radically changed over to two-ballot voting, allowing for the direct election of the prime minister, and then, just a few years later, swiftly returned to the old, still discredited system. At the time, this newspaper argued that the response to the supposed failure of the direct election system should not have been to return to our current hyper-parliamentary arrangement, but to press ahead with proposals to elect at least part of the Knesset directly, by districts. We still hold to that view. The most important reform does not involve the method for choosing the prime minister and the cabinet, but concerns how the Knesset is chosen. Though the method of choosing the legislature by district, rather than by national party lists, is associated with the US, it actually has a strong Israeli pedigree. As early as October 1948, while the War of Independence was still raging, David Ben-Gurion tried to pass a resolution in favor of regional elections. The chairman of the Election Committee of the Provisional Knesset, David Bar-Rav-Hai, explained why the current system was adopted instead: "The committee spent little time exploring theoretical alternatives, even while some members support in principle a regional system … almost all members concluded that in these elections and under the current circumstances, of war and large-scale mobilization, this theoretical debate isn't important. If we want to carry out an election quickly we have no choice but to opt for a national proportionate system." Almost 60 years later, we are still stuck with this improvised system that may be unique among democracies - not a single legislator is elected directly, by district. Moving to a system in which some portion, say a third or a half, of the Knesset will be elected by districts would reduce the number of parties, since smaller parties have trouble obtaining majorities in regional elections. Even more importantly, Israelis would for the first time have a particular MK to hold accountable and represent them on a regional basis. Creating such ties is critical to bridging the gap between citizens and their government, and to increasing the confidence of the electorate in their political system.


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