(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Israeli political system may never have been a parliamentary paradise, but
our governments always possessed a respectable level of
Coalitions were traditionally formed by the largest party,
led by a prime minister who was able to make important decisions: going to war,
initiating peace processes, absorbing millions of new immigrants, overhauling
the economy, and more.
But then came the electoral
In the 1990s, Israel hastily adopted a two-ballot system of
direct elections in which separate votes were cast for prime minister and party.
It was a disaster.
This unfortunate reform hamstringed the large
political parties, significantly shrinking their size and influence in favor of
smaller parties with narrow interests. This of course compromised governability
and entrenched social rifts in Israeli society.
Thankfully, we repealed
the two-ballot system, but we have been left with an open wound that continues
Anyone familiar with the enormous budgets divvied out to the
smaller coalition partners to keep them quiet and happy knows this to be true.
The system needs to be bandaged, and now. But Israel also needs supervised,
responsible, long-term rehabilitation to return to full parliamentary
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Once again, there are dangerous voices that are giving false hope
with promises of a quick fix, of total change in one-fell-swoop.
options being proposed are in fact quite similar – a switch to a presidential
democracy and a return, through a back door, to the two-ballot system. The first
option is being spearheaded by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman; the second is
part of the platform of the new “Yesh Sikui” movement led by former Mossad chief
Meir Dagan and can also be inferred from the rhetoric of Yair Lapid, who is the
midst of founding a new centrist party.
Much of what is being put forward
in the new movement’s platform is useful, but becomes irrelevant in light of its
core proposal that the prime minister can only be elected if his/her party
receives 48 or more mandates; if no party receives enough mandates, a second
round of elections will be conducted in which the two largest parties compete
for the premiership. Two rounds and two ballots, however, would bring us right
back to the disaster of direct elections.
These proposals, both of which
resemble a presidential system, are detrimental to any effort to strike a
balance in the Israeli political landscape between representation of
constituents’ interests and effective governance. Both would harm the complex
makeup of Israel’s social fabric and strengthen sectoral parties, whose
supporters would continue to split their votes. Both would further dilute the
centralization of power, a dilution that is already paralyzing effective
In addition, focusing on the cult of personality by
concentrating more power in the chief executive – be it a president or a prime
minister elected in a second round of voting – would lead to a dangerous
“Putinization” of Israeli democracy, where leaders come to resemble czars more
than prime ministers and presidents.
The Israel Democracy Institute has
prepared four avenues to reform the current system: Restoration of Israel’s
political parties; enhancing the efficiency of the Knesset and the legislative
process; democratization of the election process; strengthening the ability of
the prime minister to govern.
The strengthening of a parliamentary
democracy must be an evolutionary, not revolutionary, process, and therefore
changes must be moderate and incremental. While each can stand alone, when
implemented together, they will fortify one another, and will improve the system
Perhaps we should take our cues from the structural
underpinnings of American democracy. There, the founding fathers imposed systems
of governance via the Constitution in a top-down manner, and they also allowed
for the organic and gradual growth of democratic institutions from the
bottom-up, through ongoing interpretation of that Constitution, not through
Incremental change will allow the Israeli public to
continue enjoying the clear advantages of a parliamentary democracy, while
repairing and decreasing the structural flaws of that system.
learn from our own historical and political mistakes so we don’t doom ourselves
to repeat them.The writer is president of the Israel Democracy Institute
and the author of the forthcoming
Democracy Without a Constitution – How Can
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