Here and There: The elections merry-go-round... and its consequential fallout

There can be no doubt that the current electoral system we ‘enjoy’ in Israel will continue to provide governments that simply cannot govern.

Elections in Israel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Elections in Israel
Here we go again: election fever in the air – only some 23 months since the 19th Knesset was elected.
What can we “look forward” to? Three months of hearing one party abuse the other and three months of promises, the majority of which are unlikely to be fulfilled.
There can be no doubt that the current electoral system we “enjoy” in Israel will continue to provide governments that simply cannot govern. This is the price we pay for what some call the “ultimate democratic method of election.”
I was reminded of this when, back in 2000, I chaired a panel in Jerusalem for a visiting delegation from WIZO UK.
A commonly repeated question arose when one of the participants asked, “How come such a small country with a small population can have, at times, as many as 30 to 40 parties all vying to be elected to the Knesset?” She went on, “Surely this is one of the reasons that governments here often fail to complete the four years to which they are entitled?” A member of the panel, the late David Bar-Illan, a former editor of The Jerusalem Post, responded by saying, “Our electoral system is a truly democratic process – Israel is a country comprised of those with origins in many different lands, with traditions unique to them.
Israel can justly boast that everyone has representation in the Knesset.”
While this might be true in theory, in practice what we have witnessed is that – too frequently – the minority rules the majority. Coalitions are formed (often with parties that hold diametrically opposed viewpoints), in which the minority view will win the day. For in order to remain in government, a prime requisite is sufficient agreement between the coalition partners – despite their diversity – to make important decisions.
Very often, this leads to a “barter” situation.
Yes, I will vote for this proposal if you will give me (my party) “X.” If you don’t agree, then I won’t vote for your proposal; if you do agree, I will have what I want – which may well not be what the electorate voted for.
Israel’s proportional representation electoral system allocates seats to each party in proportion to its share of the overall vote.
Therefore, the MK is beholden to his party rather than those who voted him into office. Conversely in the UK, from which I originate, the electorate votes for an individual member of a party, representing an area/constituency. This results in the elected MP feeling an obligation to the constituent who voted for him.
Sadly, here the voter has no specific MK to represent him in the Knesset, with the result that the MK feels no personal responsibility towards those who elected him.
All this is by way of an introduction to one of the most problematic aspects of our current system: namely, the effect of having to call elections on a far-too frequent basis. Involved as I am with the English-Speaking Residents Association (ESRA), a nonprofit whose primary concern is for the underprivileged youngsters in our society, it is a source of frustration that those who head ministries – such as Social Welfare and Education – are unable to bring to fruition policies that are urgently needed to confront the ever-growing social and economic gap between the haves and have-nots. This is simply because they are not in office long enough to bring about the change so desperately required.
We are a country that relies heavily on our education system; we have had only our brains to depend on for most of the 66 years of our existence. One would imagine, therefore, that our government would consider the education of our children to be of primary importance.
However, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s “2014 Education at a Glance” study shows that Israel is not investing enough in education – and our students are performing poorly.
This includes disturbing results in international math, science and reading tests, especially when compared to other developed economies. Only 9.4 percent of Israelis completing the PISA math exam excelled, with the failure number being the highest in the West.
Classes are overcrowded – the average number of students in a class rose from 26.7 in 2000 to 27 in 2012. Yet the average number of pupils per class in OECD countries decreased during the same period, from 22.7 to 21.3; this puts Israel in 25th place out of 27 countries.
In addition, the report shows that at every level from preschool to secondary education, the state’s average dollar expenditure per student was considerably lower than that of the OECD countries.
For example, in Israel’s secondary school system, the average expenditure per pupil was $25,159, compared to $40,382 in OECD schools. Furthermore, the report’s data shows that Israel’s teachers give less classroom time than the OECD average.
ESRA, whose many projects in Netanya’s areas of deprivation are geared towards assisting those children falling behind in school, is now faced with an additional challenge. The schoolchildren of Netanya’s Hefzibah, where the population is virtually 100% Ethiopian, attended local schools with overwhelmingly Ethiopian pupils. Yet as of September 2014, the pupils have been dispersed to schools where they have the opportunity to mix with other sectors of the community.
While this is a positive and long-overdue step in the right direction, at the same time it has exposed the educational gap between the new and old pupils.
Through ESRA’s Students Build a Community project, in which successful students are offered rent-free accommodation to mentor children and help them with their schoolwork, we are endeavoring to bring the “new kids” up to the educational level of those in their new schools. However, what is necessary is for the government, through its Education Ministry, to invest more in NGOs such as ESRA – which are doing the job that really belongs to the state. Unfortunately, up until now, the various governments have not adequately addressed the needs of those who require help most of all.
How does this relate to the fact that we are having elections in March? The 2015 budget has now been eliminated, as the Knesset was dissolved prior to the budget being voted on. Within this budget, an additional NIS 3 billion was to be added to the existing budget for the Education Ministry to address the shortfalls in our current system, as highlighted by the 2014 OECD report.
This is a typical example of how frequent changes in the ministries create a situation in which the status quo remains, despite all the promises and creative ideas that we, the citizens, are promised during an election campaign.
This past March, the Knesset passed a Governance Law raising the threshold for a party to enter the Knesset, from 2% to 3.25% – the paramount aim being to limit the number of small parties entering the Knesset, thereby making governance easier than hitherto. Only time will tell whether this change will affect the electoral system for the better.
One thing is for sure: As long as the system provokes frequent changes in the leadership of ministries, this country will be unable to provide a better future for our children – and ultimately, for the State of Israel.
■ The writer is the chair of ESRA and has been active in public affairs and status-of women issues.