A fresh perspective: Saving Israel's democracy

Israel’s democracy has much to improve in order to properly function as a country in which the people rule themselves.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 3 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 3
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
One of the strongest arguments for supporting Israel in its war against radical Islam comes from the fact that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East – surrounded by dictatorships.
While in Israel the ruler is a democratically elected leader representing the people, with a sovereign parliament, our enemies are led by tyrants.
However, unfortunately, Israel’s democracy has much to improve in order to properly function as a country in which the people rule themselves.
Much has already been written about the intensive intervention of courts and of bureaucrats in the decision- making process in Israel, who take power from the elected and give it to unelected elites.
However, the very electoral system currently employed is also very problematic. The system of proportional representation, which is supposed to be the most democratic, actually hurts the representation of the public.
The power of the party membership
In a functioning and efficient democracy, parliamentarians view the general public as their employers.
They are the ones who define whether the parliamentarians will retain their job after the following elections and they are, therefore, the people whom parliamentarians try to please.
In Israel, things work differently.
Israel’s electoral system is based on a proportional system. This means that each party presents a list of candidates for the parliament, and each party then gets a proportional number of seats, according to the number of votes it received in the general elections.
In such a system, what matters the most in defining whether someone will enter parliament or not is his placement on the party’s list.
This means that the most important question for a parliamentarian who wishes to be reelected is who decides what position he will get on the list. The answer to this question defines who he sees as his employer.
In some parties in Israel, one central person or one small committee decides on who the list will be. This means that in these centralized parties, the “employer” of the parliamentarians are these specific people and they will never do anything that would displease them.
In other parties, the “democratic” parties, party members at large decide who will be on the list through primaries. This is currently true of the Labor Party, the Likud and Bayit Yehudi. However, even if these parties are considered “democratic”, and one might argue that their selection process is more fair than centralized parties, there are still significant problems with the primaries systems.
The reason is simple: most people in Israel are not party members. The largest party, the Likud, has around 100,000 members. This is far less than the nearly 1 million people that voted for the party.
Small party membership means that interest groups can organize in these parties and put tremendous pressure on the parliamentarians. After all, if they become members of the party, they become the “employers” of the parliamentarians.
In the last election, the difference between No. 18 on the Likud’s list, which was considered a guaranteed spot in the Knesset, and No. 26 on the list, which was considered an improbable spot, was around 30 votes.
In other words, 30 organized votes can truly define the future of these parliamentarians. This gives a tremendous amount of power to these pressure groups.
In general, this should also make clear to all Israelis that if they truly want to be a part of the political process, they should join political parties. However, most have yet to do so.
If party membership was wider, the influence of interest groups would be far less. However, as long as this happens, the real “boss” of the MKs is not the general public, but well-organized pressure groups in these democratic parties. This is not true democracy.
The division of power
This problem is compounded in a parliamentary system where the prime minister and all government ministers are themselves from the parliament.
One of the main principles of modern democracies is separation of powers, which includes checks and balances ensuring that each branch of government performs in an efficient and just manner.
Parliament, according to democratic thought, is supposed to not only legislate, but also to oversee the work of the executive branch. In many parliamentary systems, where the executive branch also sits in the legislature, it is still possible for legislature to do this. After all, in a system like Canada or the UK, for example, where parliamentarians are elected in regional elections, they know that their “employers,” the regional voters, want them to properly oversee the work of the executive branch, even if the prime minister is from their own party.
In Israel, however, the situation is different. As we said, the true “employers” of the MKs are those who decide what spot they will get on the party’s list.
Let us ponder the effects of this on the separation of power. In a centralized party, like Israel Beytenu, this “employer” can be only one person, Avigdor Liberman. When Liberman was of foreign minister the people of his party were simple parliamentarians, did anyone really expect them to properly oversee and question the work done by the person who can decide their political fate? The result in democratic parties is only partially better.
Even there, party members are often very loyal to their party, and despise internal criticism. Therefore, in the Likud, for example, if someone from within the party decides to criticize a Likud minister, they will probably be sanctioned in the next elections. Only in extreme cases, such as the release of terrorists or the removal of settlements, is such a criticism accepted and warranted. After all, party members want their party to stay in power and they see such criticism as destructive.
This leaves the role of overseeing the actions of the executive branch solely on the opposition. The problem with that is twofold: First of all, the opposition has very little legitimacy since it is itself partisan. Secondly, the opposition in Israel is known to criticize all actions of the current government, without really analyzing the benefits of some actions, in order to paint itself as an alternative. This lack of nuance hurts its legitimacy even more.
As long as the link with the public at large is so weak, the important separation between the legislative and executive branch will be weak as well.
The solution
Solutions have been proposed to these problems.
Some suggest conducting the primaries in democratic parties on the day of the elections itself. The system would be simple – those voting for a certain party would also mention, with their vote, what their preferred list within that party would be. Of course, the party would have an internal system defining who can be a candidate on the list, but the order of the list would be decided on election day. This would make the MKs completely dependent on the general public voting on election day, and not only on party members.
While this idea would solve some of these problems, it requires a serious systemic reform. In my opinion, the real solution will come from incentivizing membership in political parties. The larger the parties are, the less power interest groups will have within these parties.
Such incentive can be done through removing stumbling blocks to party membership, by having a centralized online system where people can easily sign up to join one party based on their ID number. Israel can also ask all voters to register for their party of choice when they register to vote, always giving them the option to register as independents. This required registration, I believe, would encourage most people to register for a party in order to enhance their political power.
Until policy changes are applied, it is the job of NGOs to ensure that the public knows the importance and the advantages of joining a democratic party that holds primaries.
The writer is an attorney and a former legislative adviser to the Coalition Chairman in the Knesset. He previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s master’s program in public policy.