Israeli instability and democratic distortions

Once again, Israel''s government coalition teetered on the brink of destruction this past weekend. 
Though it now seems likely that the unity government will weather the storm over replacing the Tal Law, the prospect of another collapsed government highlighted the endemic instability in Israel, which has prevented every government in the past two decades from finishing a full term.
But more than the intense division over weighty issues or the paucity of bold leaderships, more than the shifting national mood or the pressure of managing one of the most caustic conflicts in the world, governments fall like dominos in Israel because of structural flaws in its electoral system.
The coalition government itself cited electoral reform among its top four priorities, to which end the prime minister appointed Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz to head a committee on the subject.
But even if plans go forward, the best intentions can pave the road to hell. The reforms currently on the table may well create as many problems as they solve.  
Israel has been down that road before, as anyone who voted between 1996 and 2001 would recall; in the intervening elections, Israel experimented with directly picking its Prime Minister, separating the vote from that of the Knesset. The results were a mixed bag. Because voters were free to “split the ticket” and vote for both their Prime Minister of choice and a different political party in Knesset, the already-small “major parties” shrank and the "fringe parties" swelled. While that outcome may be great for democratic representation, it created a situation in which the government was beholden to the smaller parties, who could fell the coalition if their whims were not met.
It also created, for the first time in Israeli history, an American-style "divided government," with different parties controlling the executive and legislature.  In a pure presidential system like the United States has, divided government can produce moderate compromise on policy at best, or deadlock at worst. In the hybrid system Israel tried out, the Knesset and Prime Minister had powers, under the right circumstances, to oust one another, and the results were greater instability. The governing coalition fell apart by 1999, and the subsequent coalition, headed by Ehud Barak, lasted just over a year. The system was scrapped in 2001.
This time around, Katz reportedly has four reform items on the table: 1) Raising the electoral threshold; 2) subjecting part of the Knesset to regionally districted elections; 3) increasing the number of MKs needed to pass a no-confidence vote, and 4) reducing the number of ministers. The first two policies, in particular, have serious problems that could cause a replay of the 1996 reform debacle.
The goal of the first reform, raising the electoral threshold, is to reduce the number of parties in the Knesset. Israel’s election threshold is one of the lowest in the world; a party only needs to win 2% of the votes—two seats—to gain representation in the Knesset. That is why, for example, the current Knesset contains a whopping 13 parties, the largest of which controls less than a quarter of the 120 mandates. The government would be far more stable if there were fewer, but larger parties.
While the idea behind the suggested reform is right, its proposed threshold is too small; at 2.5%, it raises the minimum to only three seats. In the last two elections, that would have prevented exactly one party (Balad) from entering the Knesset, and in the two prior elections it would have disqualified three parties, leaving seven seats to be redistributed among the rest. That is hardly enough to enhance government stability.
Raising the minimum to 3.3%, on the other hand, would have knocked out four parties and freed up 13 seats in the past election.  A threshold of 3.5% would have knocked out six parties, leaving 21 seats for the remaining seven parties to gobble up. Both options are still well below the 5% minimum common in many European countries and give the government the stability needed to actually get things done.
The second flawed recommendation that seems likely to take hold is splitting the electoral system in the Knesset, and subjecting half of its seats to district-based elections.
By creating an artificial geographic boundary, the new system can lead to perverse outcomes based on imaginary lines instead of voter preferences. The best-known example is the 2000 presidential election in the United States, in which Al Gore won the popular vote by 543,895 votes, but due to geographic distortions in the electoral system lost the election to George W. Bush. If 600 of the Democratic voters from, say, California (which Gore won by about 1.4 million votes) had voted in Florida instead, Gore would have been president. The system''s geographic distortions meant that where people voted mattered as much as who they voted for. Ask any blue voter in a heavily red state, or any red voter in a heavily blue state, and they will likely express frustration that their vote counts for less than that of a swing-state voter.
The Palestinian parliamentary election in 2006 offers another stark example. Few people realize that although Hamas swept the elections, winning 74 of the 132 seats, it actually won less than half of the popular vote. Districting distortions of the type now being proposed for Israel were largely to blame. The well-disciplined Hamas ran only one candidate in each district, while other parties ran multiple candidates, and split the vote. If 60% of a district opposed the Hamas candidate, but split their votes evenly between two opponents, the Hamas candidate still won the seat. That''s how the plurality 44.45% Hamas won in the popular vote translated to a majority 56% of seats, while Fatah''s 41.43% popular vote equated to only 34% of seats, and no parliamentary power. (To be fair, the distortion in that case was exacerbated by an additional electoral flaw called “bloc voting” that allowed multiple voting in multi-seat districts).
Why would Israel voluntarily sign up for a system that could have such major consequences for its electoral integrity?
The rationale is that district voting would create more personal accountability—voters could take their district representative to task when things went wrong, and have a specific person to call up and air their political gripes.
The reasoning is misplaced. For one, its potential benefit is minimal.  In a country with a population the size of New York City, access to members of government remains exceedingly simple for those who seek it. An activist friend of mine recently managed to obtain, without much trouble, the cell phone numbers of government ministers and send them mass text messages, urging them to act on his issue. The same friend, a few years back, embarked on a one-man letter-writing campaign to each member of Knesset, resulting in numerous face-to-face meetings with MKs to talk policy. A destination for airing concerns, it seems, is not hard to find. 
While problems with accountability do exist, they could better be solved by opening up party primaries, many of which are confined to central committee voting. Without the chance to elect the party members that the public votes into office, the public lacks tools for ousting those who go astray of their will. Open primaries, however, would solve that problem without creating the major electoral distortion currently being considered.
The final two reforms: increasing the number of MKs needed to pass a no-confidence vote and reducing the number of ministers, are thankfully common sense measures that will work to enhance government efficiency and stability.
Hopefully the current government will be around long enough to pass them.