While others denigrate it, and his colleagues ultimately reversed it, Uriel Lynn is rather proud of the partial electoral reform he steered through the Knesset a decade and a half ago. "People talk a lot of rubbish about the direct election system," he huffs. "We looked into every aspect. We spent years working on it. We brought in academics, checked literature, consulted with all the factions."
He does, however, admit to one mistake. The then Likud chair of the Knesset Law Committee and his estimable colleagues did not anticipate the extent to which we voters would split our vote, choosing a prime ministerial candidate from one party and using the second ballot for a different party, producing a flood of small factions. "On the basis of 20-35 years of experience with direct election in the municipal system, I thought that the 50 percent of the public who'd vote for the [successful] prime minister would want to support him in parliament. I was wrong."
To this day, Lynn, who is currently president of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, believes the direct election system is more stable than the pure proportional representation system to which Israel returned after Ariel Sharon's first election victory in 2001. You get the sense that he feels that prime ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the other beneficiaries of the short-lived reform, somehow abused his progeny. He certainly wants to stress that only part of the much-researched reform was implemented: the idea was also to switch to a partial constituency system, with 60 Knesset members elected in districts and the other 60 on national lists, but the legislation foundered.
Old-fashioned in the nicest way - courteous and unhurried over a light meal at a Tel Aviv restaurant across the street from his office - Lynn politely ridicules Avigdor Lieberman's calls for a presidential system as missing the point. "He has his world view. I think he's wrong," he says, succinctly damning. "The root of the problem is pure proportional representation. If America had it, with say a 3 percent threshold, you'd have loads of little parties there. It's a less homogeneous society than ours," he reasons.
The system there discourages independent, small-party candidates. "They know they need one of the two big parties behind them to stand a chance."
Doesn't that limit the range of candidates and policies open to voters? "No," says Lynn. "You still have lots of room of maneuver, except perhaps on foreign policy." Amusingly, if not entirely relevantly, he adds: "Almost everything I did [in the Knesset] was against my party."
Lynn is entirely convinced that the agitation for electoral change is going nowhere this time, despite the headlines the subject has been making of late, "because the public isn't up in arms demanding it." By contrast, he recalls, "people were demonstrating outside my home in 1990, people were on hunger strike, there were protests in the city squares."
The backdrop, of course, was years of "national unity" government, with Likud and Labor, equal-sized major blocs, each constantly seeking to steal a march on the other. "The whole system seemed corrupt and personal ambition was running wild. MKs were up for sale," Lynn remembers. And it culminated in [then-Labor leader Shimon] Peres's "stinking maneuver," engineering the collapse of the Yitzhak Shamir-led coalition only to fail to construct his own.
"There was an outcry. Today? Today, the complaints aren't serious," he says dismissively.
Still, if there were to be an overhaul, Lynn has modified his ideal reform. Rather than 60 MKs from 60 constituencies joining the 60 selected on the basis of proportional representation, he now advocates two MKs being chosen from each of 30 electoral districts. This shift, he argues, would give some hope to the smaller parties, an appropriate concern for Israel, he says.
A constituency system would also, crucially, provide accountability, of course, giving voters a local MK to champion local needs, and to be booted out if he or she was failing to do so. What are the chances of the current crop voting for that kind of change? Lynn merely raises an eyebrow in eloquent response. D.H.