Fixing the political system - Opinion

Would Israeli Arabs, or haredi, Sephardi or National-Religious Jews accept a system which would place the very existence of the Joint List, United Torah Judaism, Shas or Bayit Yehudi at risk?

A SOLDIER casts his ballot on Monday at a mobile polling station near Kibbutz Zikim in the South.  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A SOLDIER casts his ballot on Monday at a mobile polling station near Kibbutz Zikim in the South.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
For the third time in eleven months, we’ve gone through an electoral campaign and come out on the other side of Election Day with a bit of a political stalemate. Once again, we are not quite sure whether any candidate will be able to cobble together a government which would garner the necessary 61 votes to gain the Knesset’s confidence. If the basic raison d’être of any electoral system is to translate votes of the electorate into workable governing bodies, it seems fairly clear that “something’s broke” in the system presently used in the Holy Land.

Proposed Solutions
Obviously, Israel could consider radical proposals to change its electoral system, such as a move to a presidential system as in the US or to the Westminster parliamentary system which would see our small country divided up into single-member constituencies. Both of these are considered part of the “majoritarian” family of electoral systems – so called because each would likely ensure a majority government and/or head of government. However, such majoritarian systems also run the risk of leaving out relatively large minority groups, or at least denying them direct representation through party lists with which they identify. Would Israeli Arabs, or haredi, Sephardi or National-Religious Jews accept a system which would place the very existence of the Joint List, United Torah Judaism, Shas or Bayit Yehudi at risk?
The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) has studied various solutions proposed over the years. In 2013, the IDI published a relatively comprehensive study on the subject: Tikkun Shitat Hamimshal B’Yisrael (Fixing the System of Government in Israel). In this book, the authors favored expanding the Knesset to 180 members and instituting a mixed system, whereby some MK’s would be elected in geographic districts or constituencies while others would be elected by national party lists; citizens would also have limited ability to rank some candidates on the ballot (party list) which they place in the ballot box on election day.
Interesting ideas? Certainly. Worthy and helpful? Possibly, maybe even probably. Complex and open to manipulation, such as gerrymandering? Unfortunately, yes. Likely to gain traction in a Knesset dominated by small, sectoral, parties? Unfortunately, no.
More recently, in May 2015, the IDI put forward a more modest proposal, focused on the acceptance of minority governments for Israel. According to the IDI booklet entitled “Reforming Israel’s Political System: A Plan for the Knesset,” the easiest way to fix the system would be to amend the law so that the leader of the party list receiving the most votes would automatically become Prime Minister, without needing to receive 61 votes in the Knesset. Other parties may wish to join the government and provide the elected Prime Minister with a majority, but the PM could also form a government based upon his/her own party without ever getting a parliamentary majority.
But governing by minority doesn’t seem like a great idea for a country such as ours, which often finds itself dealing with core existential issues. Obviously, passing a budget would often be next to impossible, but more importantly – a minority government would probably all but eliminate any real possibility for making decisions in the realm of war and peace or matters of religion and state.

A “bonus” proposal
But what if such a minority could be brought half a step closer to majority – and the legitimacy inherent in such status – with one relatively simple tweak to our current system? I refer to the possibility of awarding a minimal electoral bonus to the party list receiving the largest number of votes in the election. For example, it could be legislated that such a list automatically receive 50 Knesset seats; the remaining 70 seats would then be divided amongst the other lists which passed the electoral threshold, thereby ensuring continued representation to the various minority groupings currently represented in the Knesset.
How would the results of the last three election rounds have looked under such a system? In April 2019 and March 2020, Likud would have received 50 mandates and in September 2010, Blue and White would have received 50 mandates.
So, what does this show us? Well, as expected, putting together a coalition when you’re starting from 50 seats, is indeed much easier. In both the first round of elections and the third, most recent round, the Likud would have had absolutely no trouble putting together a stable coalition. In April, there could have been a right-wing coalition that would have been 68 MK’s strong, leaving no need for the second or third rounds of elections, and saving untold millions of shekels to the Israeli taxpayer. And today, after the results of the elections to the 23rd Knesset, the Likud wouldn’t be stuck with only 59 (or 60) seats, but rather could easily set up a coalition of 69 or 70.
What about the September election? As we remember, even though Blue-White received the most seats in that election (33), it was unable to put together a coalition since its natural allies on the Left (Avoda and Meretz) received only 11 seats between them. Therefore, at 44 total Center-Left seats, Blue-White was unable to get close to 61 even if Yisrael Beytenu had agreed to join such a coalition. Under the bonus system though, Blue-White would have received 50 seats, which – together with Avoda’s and Meretz’s 9 MK’s – would have made a path to 61 possible, if Yisrael Beytenu or, perhaps, even the Hadash contingent of the Joint List, were persuaded to lend a hand.
It should also be noted that, over and above making coalition-building easier, the bonus system would return the largest party to a position of preeminence, making it the backbone of the governmental coalition as it was until the 1990’s. The key by which the different coalition partners would be awarded their ministries, would ensure that the 50-seat party list receive the lion’s share of portfolios – thereby strengthening the coalition and limiting the centrifugal forces that often lead to its early dissolution.

A bonus plus
But wouldn’t this still be a blow to the high level of proportionality Israel is used to? Well, as far as party proportionality goes – yes, to a limited extent. But there are many ways to measure proportionality; for instance, our system has consistently led to distinctly non-proportional representation for the 51% of our population which is female. Since 2013, the number of women elected to the Knesset has remained relatively stable, fluctuating between 27 and 30 female MK’s. The share of female MK’s would have to more than double in order to reach the 61 MK’s warranted by its share of the populace.
This gender gap could be mitigated somewhat within such a bonus system. For instance, the bonus could be contingent on gender-proportionality. How would that work? Any party wishing to gain the bonus would have to prepare a party list (perhaps it could be a separate bonus list) which would include at least 60 candidates, alternating by gender (i.e., either every odd-numbered candidate would be female and every even-numbered candidate male – or vice versa). In this way, the coalition would include 25 male MK’s and 25 female MK’s from the victorious party list, thereby making both the Knesset and – most likely – the government itself more proportional in regard to gender.
How gender-proportional would the 23rd Knesset be under such a system? Well, firstly there would be 25 female MK’s from Likud; on top of that, there would be another 16 female MK’s from the other parties – or all together, an Israeli-record 41 female MK’s. Not 51%, but much more than the number of women just elected under the system in place.
It must be emphasized that under no circumstances should Israel consider an automatic majority bonus – i.e., a bonus that would grant the victorious party list more than 60 Knesset seats. Such a system, under what was then known as the Acerbo Law, was used by former prime minister of Italy Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) to gain power in 1924 and there is no need to import such problematic ideas into our fledgling democratic life. Rather, capping the bonus at 50 or thereabouts can further our meshilut (governability) without the dangers to democracy inherent in a majority bonus system.
A limited bonus system would, at any rate, likely bring about political change as well, convincing some of the smaller satellite parties to join the electoral lists of larger ones in an attempt to grab the electoral bonus. This, of course, would mean that the 50 seats awarded to the largest party list would likely, over time, represent a much more limited skewing of party proportionality.
At the end of the day, with minimal tinkering, Israel’s system could perhaps achieve a greater measure of governability and stability, while yet holding on to a large measure of proportionality, and even broadening such proportionality to additional spheres, as suggested. We have a Hebrew idiom for this: win-win.
Dr. Mark Sabi is the pen name of an apolitical civil servant with advanced degrees in law and political science and a passion for democracy.