Constituency Elections: A threat to Israeli democracy

MK Katz's proposal of a constituency-based system is perilous for Israel's political climate.

ISRAEL KATZ 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Last week, Transportation Minister Israel Katz sat down for an insightful interview with The Jerusalem Post. Tasked by Prime Minister Netanyahu with implementing the new coalition's ambitious plan to reform the Israeli electoral system, Katz outlined four measures that he intends to pursue: raising the electoral threshold, requiring a greater number of MKs to successfully bring down a sitting government, limiting the number of ministers in any given government, and electing some MKs via a constituency-based system, with the ultimate goal being a Knesset with 50 percent of its Members elected in this manner.
The first three initiatives are long overdue, and will grant much-needed stability to Israel's chaotic political system. The fourth, however, is nothing less than a dagger pointed at the heart of Israeli democracy, however well-intentioned.
A quick look at other democracies that use a constituency-based system, like the US or Canada, reveals some basic problems with that model. Moreover, that electoral format would cause additional problems specific to Israel, which faces a situation unique to parliamentary democracies.
Chief among these concerns is what to do with the approximately 350,000 Israeli citizens living in the West Bank. Where will they vote? If special ridings are created in Judea and Samaria to represent them, the international community will see this (rightly or wrongly) as a de facto annexation of those areas, triggering dangerous diplomatic repercussions. Even worse, such a move would strengthen the calumny of "Israeli apartheid," as certain MKs would be elected to the Knesset by less than half of the people actually living in their districts, assuming that voting rights were not extended to local Palestinians.
The obvious solution would be to simply compel West Bank Israelis to vote in Israel proper, forcing residents of Ma'ale Adumim to vote in Jerusalem, for example. But this would fatally undermine the legitimacy of the whole constituency system, as Jerusalem's representative(s) in the Knesset would be determined by people living outside of their mandate.
Although it is rarely admitted openly, the main goal of these electoral reforms is to decrease the government-paralyzing influence of smaller parties in the Knesset, notably those elected by Arabs and haredim. Ironically, a constituency-based system would likely increase their numbers and clout in Israel's parliamentary chamber. Haredi voters tend to be heavily concentrated in certain cities such as Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, virtually ensuring that those seats would be controlled by United Torah Judaism. Similarly, predominantly Arab locales such as the Little Triangle, the Lower Galilee, and the Negev interior would inevitably vote for Arab parties. We should expect more Haneen Zoabi's in a constituency-based Knesset, not less.
Even worse, this phenomenon could lead quickly to ghettoization and “white flight,” already a growing problem in Israel. Let us turn to Nazareth Illit, a Jewish town of 40,000 on the outskirts of Nazareth, for a salient example. In a greater Nazareth constituency incorporating the two settlements, Jews would be far outnumbered by Nazareth's 100,000 Arabs. Thus, the constituency would almost certainly elect an MK from Balad, United Arab List-Ta'al or Hadash, all virulently anti-Zionist political parties.
Since an anti-Zionist group will never be included in a coalition, the residents of Nazareth Illit would be permanently denied a place in government by no fault of their own, and might choose to move elsewhere in order to avoid the regional neglect that would naturally follow. The current electoral list system, for all of its flaws, at least ensures that virtually every vote counts at election time.
This problem is further demonstrated by the potential for “swing ridings,” a phenomenon that already wrecks havoc in the American political system. US presidential candidates are compelled to cater to voters in swing states such as Florida and Ohio, since their vote is far more valuable than those of Texans or New Yorkers. Similarly, Labor and Kadima might make grandiose promises to the residents of Haifa and North Tel Aviv, while ignoring less affluent and more right-leaning voters in Jerusalem seats that they are unlikely to win.
The only way to solve many of the aforementioned issues would be to import another unsavory American political practice, known as gerrymandering. American Congressional districts are regularly given outrageous and illogical shapes by self-interested politicians in order to benefit their parties' candidates during the next election. This problem could be solved by delegating a multi-partisan or non-partisan body to determine electoral boundaries, but such a solution might prove illusory in a politically polarized Israel.
Finally, a regional electoral model would ostensibly increase the likelihood of forming a majority government, as a party such as Likud could simply win a plurality of votes in a vast number of ridings. This was the outcome of Canada's federal election last year, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper won an outright majority of seats with only 40% of the popular vote.
But it is this apparent success of the system that poses the greatest danger of all. Unlike Mr. Harper, Israeli Prime Ministers are often called upon to make life and death decisions not just for themselves, but for their entire country. Any initiative to surrender large portions of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians or go to war with Iran or any other state could either save the State of Israel or destroy it, costing thousands and thousands of lives.
A Knesset with even half of its seats elected on a constituency basis could facilitate a majority government with well under 50% of the popular vote, giving it an illegitimate monopoly on power in the Jewish State. This is all the more so in a country that lacks a strong executive branch or an upper chamber such as those present in France or the United Kingdom. A government not elected by the majority of Israelis has no right to abandon any part of of the Jewish homeland or send its sons to die in an ill-advised war.
According to Jerusalem Post reporter Gil Hoffman, Minister Katz did not even know what a “constituency” was when the term was mentioned to him. He would do well to more carefully consider its implications before making a momentous decision that the State of Israel will come to regret.