Bill seeks regional MK elections

Unlikely coalition of Labor, Kadima, Likud legislators seek to elect half of plenum from 60 constituencies.

Israel could be divided into 60 constituencies that would each elect a representative to the Knesset, if an unlikely coalition of Labor, Kadima and Likud MKs succeeds in advancing its electoral reform bill in the Knesset. MKs Gideon Sa'ar (Likud), Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima) and Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) submitted an electoral reform bill Monday that would allow half the Knesset to be elected by constituencies while the other 60 MKs would be elected through the system used today. The cooperation on the issue by leading MKs from the three largest parties, which was first reported in The Jerusalem Post in September, is the most significant effort to date to bringing about direct, regional elections. The MKs will now face an uphill battle in amassing support from the rest of the Knesset, as well as from MKs in their own factions who have privately expressed concern that the change would prevent them from getting reelected. "There is no getting around it," said Paz-Pines. "Most MKs today are chosen by party leaders and religious leaders. This new system can attract people who otherwise would shy away from politics, because it will make the parties nominate the cream of the crop." The threshold for winning a seat in the Knesset will remain the current two percent, while those running in the regional race can be from any party of their choosing. Many of the smaller parties are afraid that the new system could limit their chances of achieving a sizable faction in the Knesset. "They are trying to toy with the electoral system without conducting a proper examination or discussion first," said MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz). She added that the move was being pushed by the larger parties, in the hope that it would gain them seats at the expense of the smaller parties, like her own Meretz. MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) also criticized the move, saying that Israel was too small for the regional system used in places such as America and Germany. The right-wing religious parties Shas, United Torah Judaism and National Union- National Religious Party also questioned the new system, asking how the 60 regional sections would be drawn up. Depending on how the regions are drawn, sections could either favor or harm certain parties by grouping one constituency together into a solid bloc, or spreading it thin over several blocs. The bill stipulates that the 60 regions in question will be decided by the Central Elections Committee. Candidates can run in both the regional and national elections; if they win both, they take their seat in the regional election slot, and the national election chair moves to the next member of their party. Bringing more local political interests into the parliament could help alleviate some of the apathy that has developed in the Knesset, said MKs Ben-Sasson, Paz-Pines and Sa'ar, who were working hard to persuade other MKs to support the bill. "Israel is in the midst of a crisis of faith between the voting public and its representatives," wrote the three in the bill's brief. "The new system... will subject the members of Knesset to greater public scrutiny, before and during their tenure." MK Sa'ar added that the public could be swayed to support the new system if all the big parties supported it together. "The novelty here is that members of all three big parties have joined forces and agreed on the main problem the current electoral system faces and its possible solution," said Sa'ar. Due to Ben-Sasson's support for the reform, it is likely to pass through the Law Committee (which he heads) without problems. Getting it through the plenum, however, will require the MKs to work overtime to convince some of the smaller parties to help them. Together, the MKs currently have the support of their three parties - 50 MKs. They will need at least 11 more MKs to support them in order to pass their electoral reform bill through three votes. Israel Beiteinu and Meretz have already expressed their strong opposition to the bill, while the nine Arab faction MKs are unlikely to support the legislation due to the growing animosity between them and the rest of the Knesset. The MKs must therefore convince some of the right-wing religious parties to support them. Shas could support the bill, said one of its MKs, depending on how the regional map was drawn. "We need to continue to discuss the matter, and, of course, we need to hear from our party leadership. But it has not been ruled out," said one Shas MK. Israel is one of the few democratic countries in the world where none of its parliament members are elected directly to represent regions. Paz-Pines said he opposed regional elections in Israel for many years, but he changed his mind recently and decided to push for Israel to adopt the German system of electing half the parliament by party and half regionally. "I was against regional elections because I thought the country was too small for them," Paz-Pines said. "But the country has grown to seven million people and the time has come. The German system has proven itself as the world's best. The public is too disconnected from its representatives. The will to change the Israeli reality is genuine." Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.