Power to the people

Next month will be the key test for advancing regional elections.

bibi saar upfront 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bibi saar upfront 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'The Knesset member representing Ra'anana yields the floor to the MK from the Arad region who will speak now about how the bill would help his constituency, due to his accountability to the people who voted for him," the Knesset speaker said. The previous sentence cannot be found in the Knesset protocols for many reasons. First of all, this is one of the few countries where none of the members of parliament is elected regionally. Secondly, there are no words for accountability or constituency in Hebrew. But that could change if a grassroots effort called the Citizens Empowerment Public Action Campaign (CEPAC) is successful. It aims to mobilize public demand for a more representative Knesset accountable to the people rather then to the political establishment via a mass petition campaign for direct regional elections. More than 3,000 people from across the country have signed the petition. A large percentage of the signers are immigrants from English-speaking countries, but many sabras and Druse have become involved. The organization's leaders have met with MKs from across the political spectrum to present them with the petition and the results of a Dahaf Institute poll they sponsored about public attitudes toward electing MKs regionally. The poll found that 64 percent of the population does not feel that their interests are currently represented in the Knesset. The same percentage said they were in favor of some kind of change to a constituency-based electoral system, with 41% saying they wanted all MKs elected regionally and 23% preferring to see some of the MKs elected that way and some by the current system. CEPAC was founded last year by Elaine Levitt, of the northern town of Kfar Vradim, a 67-year-old entrepreneur and grandmother, who owns and operates the Kedumim chain of employment agencies and has been a member of four political parties since she made aliya from Oklahoma City in 1973. Levitt said the last party she joined was Kadima, ahead of the last election, because she wanted to help elect Tel Aviv University economist Dan Ben-David, who was raised in the US and trained at the University of Chicago. But Ben-David was not placed high enough on the Kadima list to make it into the Knesset. She said the best potential MKs often do not run because they are turned off by the system. "We maintain that only a Knesset that is truly elected by the people could attract the intelligent people who today would not touch politics with a 10-foot pole," Levitt said. "We have been recycling leaders for way too long. We need new leaders and a stronger Knesset that does real work on behalf of the public that has no voice at all today." Levitt knows that she is fighting an uphill battle. Many MKs would not support such reforms because it would harm their reelection chances, while others think that the country is too small for regional elections and that several smaller reforms might be more effective. AN OVERHAUL of the electoral system is currently taking place in the Knesset Law Committee, which is headed by Kadima's Menahem Ben-Sasson, a first-term MK who is a former Hebrew University rector and law school professor. Ben-Sasson's reforms received a key endorsement from Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman in a meeting the two had with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week, which should give them a majority to pass next month when the Knesset returns for its winter session. Ben-Sasson has been passing the reforms piece by piece in his committee, but he hopes to bring them to a vote in the plenum as a package. In February, the committee passed the so-called Norwegian law, whereby MKs who are appointed as ministers will automatically quit the Knesset but return if they leave the cabinet. The move is intended to end the current situation, in which ministers neglect their parliamentary work while backbench MKs juggle between five committees. But its opponents believe it would empower backbenchers to rebel and allow MKs to pass irresponsible, populist proposals without the government's oversight. The Law Committee voted in July to raise the electoral threshold from 2% to 2.5%, which would likely mean that factions would have a minimum of five MKs as of the next Knesset. The large parties favored raising the threshold by a larger percentage, but they have been forced by the smaller parties to raise it only gradually by small margins. The next step for the committee was a proposal to make the leader of the largest party prime minister automatically, instead of the current system whereby the president decides who should form the government. That idea was voted down in July, but Ben-Sasson said he thinks it will pass after the summer recess. Such a step could have serious implications after the next election. A poll broadcast by Israel Radio two weeks ago found that if Olmert were Kadima's candidate, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu would beat Labor chairman Ehud Barak by just 2%, with Olmert far behind. If Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni ran on Kadima's behalf, Netanyahu would receive 29%, and Livni and Barak 24% each. According to the current system, President Shimon Peres, who was elected by Kadima, could decide that Kadima's candidate would have an easier time forming a government despite a third-place finish. He could also choose Barak over Netanyahu in an effort to keep up hope for peace agreements with the Palestinians and Israel's neighbors. Ben-Sasson hopes to pass four more reforms in his committee before they are brought upstairs for a vote in the plenum. He wants the Knesset to dissolve automatically if the state budget does not pass by December 31 instead of the current March 1. Another proposal would prevent no-confidence motions from being raised without the support of 61 MKs for an alternative candidate for prime minister. This would end hours wasted every week on debating motions that have no chance of passing. Ben-Sasson will also try to pass reforms redefining how to replace an incapacitated prime minister and preventing the Finance Ministry from hiding operative decisions inside the arrangements bill, which accompanies the budget and is hundreds of pages long and is voted on every year by MKs who are not given time to read it. Asked about electing MKs regionally, Ben-Sasson said he supported the idea but he wanted to first make sure to pass the reforms that had a better chance of passing and only then get to ideas that are more controversial. He said that most veteran MKs believe electing MKs regionally is not right for the country in the current situation. "There is no majority for a regional element," Ben-Sasson said. "After talking to almost all 120 MKs, I think it is safe to say it has no chance of passing." Levitt praised Ben-Sasson's reforms but said they did not go far enough. She said her organization would begin a renewed effort to lobby the members of the Law Committee to allow electing MKs regionally to be given a chance to enter the package that will be brought to vote in the plenum. "His reforms are a step in the right direction but it's still upsetting that the people don't have a say," Levitt said. "These steps don't address the people's needs. I know it's not in the interests of the MKs to enact regional elections. Everyone I thought would help us has had his own personal agenda. Other than a few established MKs, it is quite obvious that the majority of the Knesset does not want to vote themselves out of business." JUST WHEN Levitt was starting to give up hope for advancing regional elections, she received good news last week from Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines, a former Law Committee chairman who is one of the committee's most active members. Paz-Pines, who opposed electing MKs regionally for many years, revealed that he had changed his mind. He said he has been working behind the scenes with experts on devising a bill that he intends to propose next month, which would call for adopting the German system of electing half the MKs regionally and half according to the current system. "I was against regional elections because I thought the country was too small for them," he 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." Paz-Pines's surprising endorsement puts him in rare agreement with Likud faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar, who for many years has been the leading advocate in the Knesset for direct regional elections. Sa'ar, a Law Committee member, proposed a bill in the previous Knesset for 90 MKs to be elected regionally and 30 nationally. He proposed a bill in this Knesset similar to Paz-Pines's proposal of electing 60 MKs by each system, but he has not brought it to a vote because it lacked a majority. For Sa'ar, ensuring representation for the different regions of the country is less important than allowing the public to choose its MKs directly. He noted that in the current Knesset, 75 MKs were not elected. They were appointed by the heads of Kadima, Israel Beiteinu, Shas, United Torah Judaism, the Gil Pensioners Party and Arab factions. "Regional elections are an important step on the way to democratization," Sa'ar said. "They would make the public more involved and more connected to the politicians, and the quality of the MKs would have to improve. But instead of reforms that are needed to help the people, [Olmert and Ben-Sasson] are passing the reforms that politicians would agree to, so they can say they did something." Other politicians who have endorsed electing MKs regionally include Netanyahu and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit. While Netanyahu said he wanted half the MKs elected regionally, Sheetrit said he favored electing the entire Knesset by region and eliminating the current system altogether. MKS FROM across the political spectrum have also been vocal against the idea. Meretz head Yossi Beilin said electing MKs regionally would make them overly beholden to local and not national interests. National Religious Party chairman Zevulun Orlev warned that electing MKs regionally could result in no religious Zionist MKs in the Knesset. The Palestinians used the German system in their last election in January 2006 in which Hamas was elected. Ironically, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas announced on Sunday that the PA would abandon this system in favor of the current Israeli system. Electing half of the Knesset regionally was one of the main recommendations of former president Moshe Katsav's Commission for the Examination of the Structure of Governance in Israel, which was chaired by Hebrew University president Menahem Magidor. The commission recommended that 60 MKs be elected from within 17 constituencies based on the Interior Ministry's districts and subdistricts. In each of the constituencies, the number of representatives would change according to its population, with two to five representatives each. "I didn't expect that it would be easy to pass this reform," Magidor said. "We recommended what was right, even though most of the Knesset wouldn't like it. Such a substantial change would bring about a shift of power and a real change and that's why the opposition is so great. But I still hope that enough public pressure would bring about this change." It's that public pressure that CEPAC hopes to bring. Levitt said that due to the important decisions being made in the Law Committee, next month will be the key test for advancing regional elections. She said she was confident that if enough of the public pushed, electing MKs regionally could become a reality. "More than 3,000 signed the petition without advertising, promotion, mailing or pushing," Levitt said. "We continue to receive petition after petition completed by our volunteers. This has been so pure grassroots it's not even funny. The people don't want this issue to drop, because electoral reform is urgent, now more than ever before."