Analysis: Budgeting for electoral reform?

The trouble Netanyahu faced passing the spending plan was a reminder of his campaign promise.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU and finance minister Moshe Kahlon. (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU and finance minister Moshe Kahlon.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
During the 17-hour cabinet meeting on the 2015-2016 state budget that started Wednesday at 11:20 a.m. and ended Thursday at 4:30 a.m., the ministers had a lot of time to think.
They could think about the funding with which they were officially being provided by Thursday morning’s vote and their ideas for how to spend it. They could also ponder how little time they are likely to remain in office, and what they could do to try to leave behind a footprint, let alone a legacy.
If they were thinking back about the events of the last few months, they could recall the one campaign speech that could have changed everything, had it been translated into policy.
Likud strategists promoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the January 5 opening rally of the party’s campaign almost as much as his landmark speeches to Congress and the United Nations General Assembly.
They said he would make a big announcement at the event, an announcement that would completely change the election’s agenda.
At the rally, Netanyahu announced a plan to change the Israeli multiparty political system to one with two main parties, like in the United States. Speaking at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds under the banner “Vote Likud to change the system,” Netanyahu complained that the current system made it too hard to govern, and as a result, there have been 33 governments in 66 years.
“With so many parties, the prime minister functions as a kindergarten teacher in an endless game of musical chairs,” he complained. “We will soon have to go to elections again, if we don’t fix the problem of too many small parties.”
He said that in Israel’s next election, the leader of the largest party would automatically form the government, and it would no longer be possible to topple the administration except in extreme measures, so governments would almost always last four years.
“This will lead to there being two large parties: the Likud and whatever Labor wants to call itself in each election,” he said. “Then the Likud won’t be subject to political extortion.”
The call for electoral reform made sense for the prime minister, who had justified initiating the election weeks earlier by saying his coalition partners were disloyal and preventing him from implementing his agenda.
But Netanyahu’s calls for changing the political system were short-lived. When the election continued to be too close for comfort, he announced that he would not form a national unity government with the Zionist Union, the only coalition that could have implemented an electoral reform plan that could have created a two-party system.
He made the announcement because he was competing for votes with other parties on the Right, and the impression among right-wing voters that if they voted Netanyahu, they would get Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni was costing the Likud votes.
“I don’t believe in a unity government, because a gulf exists between us and the Labor Party,” Netanyahu told The Jerusalem Post in a preelection interview. “It’s not the Labor that used to be. Anti-Zionists have permeated it, so no unity government will hold.
Therefore, there is no point in trying.”
After the election, there were talks between Netanyahu and Herzog but no official negotiations. The prime minister admitted soon after that he wanted Herzog in his government, and he still says so now, but it might be too late.
Herzog would join the government under the right circumstances, but those circumstances are unlikely.
It would require deepening security threats to Israel and political threats to Herzog’s leadership of Labor.
Chances are that the current narrow coalition of 61 MKs, which cannot accomplish much, will stay in power until another early election takes place in the spring of 2017. Meanwhile, electoral reforms will not be promoted, because Shas and United Torah Judaism would veto them, exercising a clause in the coalition agreement that allows them to prevent any changes in basic laws.
So unless the coalition is changed completely, against all odds, the only hope for serious electoral reform would be if a unity government is formed after the next election and passes changes that would take effect in the election after that.
The Israel Democracy Institute, the main institution advocating for electoral reform, is already pushing for that to happen. Under the leadership of former Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, the IDI will try to keep electoral reform on the national agenda and remind Netanyahu of his election campaign promise.
“Israel is in bad need for electoral reform to bring about more stability and stronger governance,” Plesner said.
“We need a serious change that can be a vehicle to help Israel deal with the complex challenges it is facing.”
Like Netanyahu, the IDI wants to see two major party blocs. The leader of the largest party would automatically become prime minister without need of a vote of confidence.
The parties would be given incentives to run together and stay together, which Plesner hopes will help governments last four years.
“Once it’s clear to the political actors that the leader will stay for four years, the likelihood that other parties will want to join is much higher,” Plesner said.
The IDI would take away the Knesset’s ability to dissolve itself but leave its right to pass a constructive no-confidence motion with an alternative candidate to head the government and the prime minister’s permission to go to the president and ask him to initiate an election. Such steps would limit early elections, because it is harder for parties to unite around what they agree on than around what they disagree on.
“There are other parliaments that don’t have the ability to disintegrate,” Plesner said.
“The fact that in Israel the parliament can dissolve itself is not a law of nature.”
The goal of the IDI’s initiative is not only that governments will last four years but also that they will be able to implement the policies that they believe in and promised in their campaigns.
“Rather than negotiating for his government’s survival, the prime minister will be able to focus on getting his agenda through,” Plesner said. “Electoral reform is feasible, possible and viable.”
Plesner admitted that electoral reforms cannot happen with the current coalition of 61 MKs and hinted that any coalition with haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties cannot pass such reforms. But he said he is hopeful because there is a majority for changing the system in the public and among the MKs in the Knesset now.
The final recommendation of the IDI is to eliminate the law that automatically unseats a prime minister if the state budget is not passed.
Had that law not been in place, the parties negotiating with the Treasury this week would have had less power for what Netanyahu called “political extortion” in his electoral reform speech seven months ago.
And perhaps the cabinet meeting on the budget would not have stretched 17 hours and the ministers would not have had time to ponder