Change the system

The results of the election have once again highlighted the Israeli system of government’s weaknesses.

September 22, 2019 19:54
3 minute read.
Pres. Reuven Rivlin has PM Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Gantz shake hands

President Reuven Rivlin has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at memorial ceremony for former president Shimon Peres. (photo credit: ELAD QUEEN)

President Reuven Rivlin is in a bind. As this is being written, it appears that no candidate for prime minister will receive recommendations from a majority of the Knesset.

Rivlin is known for his great respect for democracy, and will surely do what he believes is right to reflect the will of the people. A statement by the President’s Residence on Saturday night containing the schedule of Rivlin’s consultations with political parties in the coming week repeatedly said that he may have to hold additional meetings – that the president may meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz together sometime in the coming week.

Respected as Rivlin may be, the decision should not be his alone. The law does not give Rivlin guidance on what to do in this situation, and the decision will surely weigh heavily on him.

But the results of the election have once again highlighted the Israeli system of government’s weaknesses.

Blue and White received the most votes, with Likud in second place. The Right received more votes than the Center-Left, but as leader of the latter, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz might be the next premier. Either way, our election ended with no clear winner.

A clear majority of Israelis showed a preference for the large parties in the middle of the political map – Blue and White and Likud. Yet the entire system is in thrall to smaller parties. The calculations of who can form a coalition come down to a handful of seats here or there, rather than what most Israelis want.

Instead of considering how to form a government that can enact policies reflecting the will of the majority of Israelis, the special interests of smaller groups have to be constantly considered. This isn’t an affirmative action policy, it’s a situation in which interest groups’ needs and preferences overtake those of the majority again and again.

And when those small groups don’t get what they want or what they believe is right for the country, all of Israel is thrown into upheaval with yet another election. Many have forgotten that there did not have to be even one election yet; legally, it could have waited until November.

Arguably, both of the early elections this year happened because of Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s political machinations – even if there were obviously other issues at play as well.

His resignation in November was the catalyst that led to the Knesset’s dissolution six weeks later, and his intransigence, together with that of the haredim, made it impossible for Netanyahu to form a coalition after the April election. Yisrael Beytenu had five seats in the last two Knessets, when twice it dragged the whole country into an election. Now, with eight seats, Liberman will likely be the kingmaker in the coalition-building process.

There are many possible fixes for the Israeli system of government that can solve these problems. One, recommended by Bar-Ilan University Law Prof. Yedidia Stern, has an elegant simplicity to it. He suggests Israel change its laws so that the head of the largest party automatically wins the election and is tasked with forming the coalition.

Netanyahu looked into this idea in recent years, sparking an uproar because it was seen as his way to weaken the president and ensure the Likud’s reign. But the proposal has benefits that should not be dismissed.

Stern posits that this change would eliminate some of the smaller parties, and increase the strength of the larger ones. This law would convince smaller parties to merge and form larger blocs, and would motivate voters to choose major parties. Some smaller parties will remain – haredim and Israeli Arabs, for example, are less likely to be convinced that the major parties represent them – but this change creates a system that is far less vulnerable to political whims.

For such a law to pass in the Knesset, it would require support from the Left and Right, but it would benefit both of them. MKs should try to implement this simple reform to our system as soon as possible, to avoid repeating the current quagmire after our next election.

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