Will Israel’s electoral system ever be changed?

No significant change has ever really been instituted. What stands in the way?

Knesset 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Knesset 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For at least six years, there has been a majority in the Knesset for changing the country’s electoral system and adopting direct, regional elections for half of the parliament.
Such a system, which is used in Germany, would combine the strengths of Israel’s party-list proportional representation, and the American concepts of accountability and constituencies that politicians would be required to serve.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government formed a committee led by one of the ministers closest to him to seek a consensus in his coalition on electoral reforms. Well-respected figures like former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and charismatic former anchorman Yair Lapid are leading new movements pushing for changes in the system.
So why are Israelis still stuck with the same electoral system that they love to complain about? And will it ever be changed? The answer to the first question is a bit of a Catch-22. The flaws in the electoral system are difficult to fix because of – you guessed it – the flaws in the electoral system.
Israel developed a multi-party political system because its founders had different fears than the founders of the United States did.
The Americans were afraid of tyranny following years of British colonialism, so they formed a system of checks and balances among executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
By contrast, the founders of the Jewish state were afraid of something entirely different: disenfranchisement of minorities. Following 1,878 years of enduring discrimination under the rule of foreign powers in the Land of Israel and in Diaspora communities around the world, Israel’s founders wanted to make sure that all citizens would have a party that could represent them in the government.
No one party has ever won a majority of the 120 Knesset seats, so ruling parties have had to cater to smaller niche factions to build the coalition necessary to govern. To find favor with those parties, Labor, Likud and Kadima have made more and more concessions over time.
One of the most significant concessions was a pledge that is written in every coalition agreement when every new government is formed. It requires a consensus of every coalition party for changes in the Basic Law, the legislation that lays the foundation for a constitution that has never been written and may never be.
Altering the electoral system requires amending the Basic Law, so any coalition partner could veto such changes. As long as there is any party in the coalition that opposes direct, regional elections, they will not be enacted.
The main party blocking such a change is Shas, which has used the current system to give itself disproportionate power and would suffer significant harm if direct, regional elections were adopted. Shas has been part of every recent government except for 2003-2006, when prime minister Ariel Sharon left the party out of the coalition.
Shas’s presence in the current coalition makes it impossible to approve direct, regional elections and other electoral reforms that the party vetoed when Ehud Olmert was prime minister. Shas also opposes raising the 2-percent electoral threshold and automatically giving the leader of the largest party the first chance at forming a government.
When Netanyahu formed his coalition, it was important to him to include parties on both the Right and Left. He wanted Ehud Barak by his side so he could show the world that his government represented a consensus of Israelis, and not just the Right. And he insisted on including what he called the Likud’s “natural partners,” one of which was Shas.
CURRENTLY ALL polls show Netanyahu winning the next election by a landslide. But while it is considered a foregone conclusion that the man forming the next government will be the same, it cannot be taken for granted that the coalition he builds will be identical.
Netanyahu will be under a lot of pressure to form a national-unity government after the next election. That would require bringing either Kadima or Labor into the coalition.
The huge gap between the capitalist Netanyahu and socialist Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich on socioeconomic issues could make Kadima a more attractive partner this time around.
Kadima has recently joined a wave of anti-haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sentiment that proliferated following reports of haredim spitting on little girls and screaming at women soldiers to go to the back of buses. There are also voices in the Likud saying that the party must take action to force more haredim to serve in the IDF.
In such a political climate, it would be hard for Netanyahu to justify bringing Shas into his next coalition. Netanyahu has stood up to Shas before. After all, he was the finance minister in Sharon’s Shas-less government who cut benefits for yeshiva students and changed the system of child welfare benefits that until then would escalate for every child a family produced.
Shas is expected to lose half of its support in the next election, because its charismatic former leader, Arye Deri, intends to form a new party. There is also another factor that could destroy Shas overnight: Its rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, is 91 years old and will not live forever.
Two-thirds of Shas’s voters are not ultra- Orthodox, but traditional or secular Jews who have a lot of respect for Yosef. When the rabbi goes, he has no replacement.
While Shas officials refuse to discuss publicly what will happen when Yosef is no longer around, privately when asked such a question, they point to the picture on the wall in their offices. They point out that it was a picture on the wall that replaced the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and since then, Chabad has done better than it did when its rebbe lived.
Can Shas follow that successful model? No one knows.
But it is clear that whenever Shas’s support dramatically falls, it will be much easier for the prime minister to make a lot of changes that the party has blocked until now, including changes in the electoral system like enacting direct, regional elections.
THERE ARE other parties that make it harder to change the electoral system as well. Yisrael Beytenu wants a presidential system modeled after the US, and even though there is nothing close to a majority for such a drastic change, the party’s representatives oppose other electoral reforms. Yisrael Beytenu MK David Rotem heads the Knesset Law Committee, which deals with electoral reforms, and he has blocked making any changes in the system.
Ehud Barak’s Independence Party is split on electoral reform. Barak has called the current electoral system “the harshest disease that causes all the problems that have been on the public agenda.” However, his faction chairwoman, MK Einat Wilf, believes the Israeli electoral system is the best in the world, or at least the best possible system for Israel.
Nevertheless, every poll has predicted that Barak’s party will not pass the threshold in the next election. And even Yisrael Beytenu’s future is in doubt due to the legal problems of its leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman.
But attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein said this week that if Netanyahu initiates elections, the Liberman investigation will be put on hold until after the race.
Netanyahu has sounded determined to initiate electoral reforms eventually. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who heads the committee Netanyahu appointed, has said he would push for raising the electoral threshold, limiting the number of ministers and deputy ministers, and requiring a special majority for no-confidence motions.
“There is no dispute about the need to change the electoral system,” Katz said. “The goal of changing the system is not to help one party or another, but to guarantee stability to all future governments. We must change the system to enable Israel to deal with the challenges ahead, make critical decisions and implement them.”