Israel’s electoral system: there’s room for improvement

With every shade of political opinion represented by Knesset seats, no one party can emerge as the outright winner.

A woman votes in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A woman votes in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
When the Israeli electorate go to the polls, they are asked to choose the one party among the many competing – usually 20 or more – with whose policies they most agree. This system has been described as “one of the purest forms of proportional rule” since the number of seats that each party in the Knesset gains is almost exactly proportional to the number of votes the party obtains in the general election.
The downside is that inevitably the nation’s vote is fractured. With every shade of political opinion represented by Knesset seats, no one party can emerge as the outright winner. After each election, weeks are spent in backroom negotiations and deals as the party with the most votes attempts to gain sufficient support from others to command a majority in the Knesset.
From the voter’s point of view, once the concessions demanded by the smaller parties in return for their support are taken into account, it follows that the policies agreed between the cobbled-together majority can be far from the policies he or she voted for. Slightly more acceptable, perhaps, is the other type of bargaining payoff for support – high office in the new government. Prime ministers, whatever electoral system their nation favors, need political support from ministerial colleagues.
Vested interest is the great enemy of change in any electoral system. For those benefiting from the procedure as is, reform of any sort carries with it the danger of a loss of power. In Israel there is, and has been for many years, a general recognition that the electoral system is far from perfect and that change is desirable. Indeed, various changes have been introduced from time to time. But time and again the parties in power have declined to grasp the nettle of real reform.
Israel has a population of around 8 million. In the 2019 general election, no less than 47 political parties are competing for votes, thankfully amalgamated into 15 party lists. The US, with a population of some 328 million seems to manage with just two main parties, and perhaps three others.
Even the United Kingdom, combining four nations in one union of 66 million people, has only 8 political parties represented in the House of Commons.
Israel’s electoral system, as the eminent constitutionalist Vernon Bogdanor has pointed out, is not a considered structure, but a procedure hastily adopted in 1948 when the infant state was at war with its Arab neighbors. With no time or inclination to construct a new electoral model, elections to the Constituent Assembly, which became the first Knesset, were held by the same method that had been used in the pre-state period for elections to the Zionist Congress and to the elected assemblies of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Mandatory Palestine. But, as Bogdanor points out, a system suitable for a voluntary organization is not necessarily equally suitable for a mature democracy.
Attempts have been made from time to time to ameliorate the problem caused by too many small parties. Until 1992 a political party needed only one percent of the total votes cast to enter parliament. This was gradually raised – first to 1.5 percent, then to 2 percent, and more recently to 3.25 percent – which is still a low threshold of entry compared to similar electoral systems. The result is that no less than 10 political parties are represented in the current Knesset.
A major reform introduced in 1996 was the direct election of the prime minister. Its weakness was immediately demonstrated when the man chosen by the nation in 1996 to be prime minister – Benjamin Netanyahu – was not the leader of the largest party in the Knesset. The Labor party led by Shimon Peres had 34 seats; Netanyahu’s Likud only 32. Although two further prime ministers were elected by this method – Ehud Barak in 1999 and Ariel Sharon in 2001 – the experiment, clearly flawed, was discarded.
One major discrepancy between Israel’s electoral system and that of most other Western democracies is the absence of any constituency-based element. While many nations have adopted a combination of proportional representation (PR) and the direct election of representatives, the UK’s system is virtually the complete opposite of Israel’s.
Great Britain and Northern Ireland are divided into 650 constituencies, each of which elects one member of parliament. Any political party, provided it fulfills the necessary criteria, may put up candidates and compete in the election. The candidate who wins the most votes in each constituency is elected, regardless of how many votes were cast for other candidates. PR does not feature. The idea of substituting PR for first-past-the-post was put to the electorate in 2011 in a national referendum, and overwhelmingly rejected.
The UK system nearly always results in one or other of the two major parties – Conservative or Labour – obtaining a clear majority. Its leader becomes prime minister and appoints all government ministers. Party lists are an unknown phenomenon. Except in rare cases, which do arise from time to time, there is no need for the leader of the winning party to negotiate with anyone about anything.
As for elected members of parliament, each is regarded by their constituents as “their” MP, whether or not they voted for him or her. All MPs hold regular “surgeries” in their constituency where members of the public with problems can speak personally to their MP and ask for advice or help. The personal connection between MPs and their local areas is very strong.
This electoral system, like all electoral systems, is far from perfect. Its main disadvantage is its failure to match the national voting pattern with seats in parliament. The lack of any proportionality in the first-past-the-post system means that a candidate could win a seat having gained far less than 50 percent of the votes. Most of the votes cast could have gone to the three or more other candidates standing in the election. This would mean that the winning candidate attracted only a minority of support in the constituency, but nevertheless won the election – a situation which, replicated across the country, produces large majorities but a democratic deficit.
Despite its disadvantages, this was the system favored by David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s, and was the basis of a bill, tabled by Igael Hurvitz and Zalman Shoval in June 1980, which proposed dividing Israel into 120 constituencies. It passed a preliminary reading, but got no further.
Proposals for reform which combined the constituency concept with the proportionality of the present system have been put forward on three occasions – in 1958, 1972 and 1988. The last attempt, prepared by MK Mordechai Virshubski and signed by 43 others, offered two ideas. The more interesting proposed that 60 MKs would be elected in 60 constituencies, and 60 by the current system. In short, each elector would vote for both a candidate and a list. This bill also passed a first reading, but subsequently foundered.
Back in 2005, President Moshe Katsav set up a Presidential Commission for the Examination of the Governmental Structure, a forum of the country’s leading political scientists chaired by Hebrew University President Menahem Magidor. The commission met regularly for more than a year, and it too finally favored a combined system. Highlighting the lack of “clear linkage between an elected person’s performance and their chances of being reelected,” its report recommended that half of the Knesset should be elected directly within the 17 districts that the country is divided into by the Interior Ministry, while the other half would be voted in by way of the current system.
The commission’s recommendations, like the earlier parliamentary bills proposing electoral reform, were not followed up. Nor indeed were subsequent attempts, such as the determined effort by Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson in 2006. Then chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Ben-Sasson set to work with a will. Undeterred by all the previous unsuccessful attempts, he declared, “This generation might be ready. At least I have to try.” Try he did, but his proposals were blocked by those who feared a loss of influence in any revised system.
In the general election in February 2009, held shortly after Israel’s first military intervention in Gaza, no less than 34 political parties competed. Among the 12 new parties was one called “The Israelis” (Ha’Yisraelim). Its founder was Prof. Gideon Doron, a longtime campaigner for electoral reform in Israel who had played a central role in the Magidor Commission. A main plank in its platform was the urgent need for Israel to change its voting system, and it strongly supported implementing the Magidor Commission’s recommendations. The new party persuaded just 0.03 percent of the electorate to support it, gained 856 votes in total, and promptly disappeared.
Despite a history replete with discouragement and failure, electoral reform in Israel is an unfinished saga. The inadequacies of the present system remain obvious. Another genuinely determined effort, supported by a consensus from within Israel’s body politic, must be made sooner or later to provide the nation with an electoral system truly worthy of it.