Recently, right up to the deadline for submitting electoral lists, it was all about party mergers. The end result is that the map of parties contending in the upcoming elections is now a bit less split up, but remains very fragmented.
This is particularly noticeable on the Right, where there are still at least four major lists competing in the elections: Likud, Bayit Yehudi (in a joint list with the National Union-Tkuma and Otzma Yehudit), the New Right (led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked), and Israel Beytenu (even though it is currently hovering at the threshhold). To a large extent, the Kulanu Party also belongs to this bloc. In the Center, while Israel Resilience and Yesh Atid have joined forces to create the Blue and White list, the Labor Party is running alone.
Consequently, the next Knesset is also expected to be very splintered, with at least 10 factions gaining representation. The same holds for the government, which in any conceivable political constellation – except for a grand coalition composed of the Likud and Blue and White lists – will likely contain at least five factions. While the largest, ruling faction in the next Knesset is likely to gain between 30 and 37 seats – about a quarter to almost a third of the total Knesset membership or slightly more – it is a far smaller percentage than in the past.
This situation has far-reaching consequences for the work of the Knesset and the government. In order to put together a coalition, the largest faction will need to conduct negotiations with many other factions and “pay a price” to each. And once a coalition is formed, the prime minister will need to cope with pressures exerted on him by the many factions in the government, making it difficult to advance and implement policy.
While the fragmented nature of party politics in Israel is to some extent a result of Israel’s diverse population and worldviews, it is also closely related to the electoral system and to the mechanism for forming a new government, which does not give the larger factions a big enough advantage. In order to form a government, a faction needs to put together a coalition that can win a confidence motion in the Knesset. In other words, the size of a given faction is not the deciding factor as to whether it will become the ruling one. Rather, what counts is the ability to build a sufficiently broad coalition.
While in most cases the task of forming a new government is conferred on the head of the largest faction, this does not always hold true – as witnessed by events following the 2009 elections, when Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was charged with forming a government, even though the largest faction was Kadima, headed by Tzipi Livni.
IN ORDER to cut down the extent of this political splintering, the process of forming a government must be reformed. The head of the list which gains the largest number of seats in the elections should automatically form the government and become prime minster, with no need for a confidence motion by the Knesset to confirm the new government (although the Knesset would still be able to bring the government down with a no-confidence motion).
Such a reform would bring about a dramatic change in the map of party politics. The knowledge that the head of the largest list will be prime minister will encourage voters to vote for such lists, and encourage politicians and parties to join with large parties and lists. In such a situation, we can assume that all parties belonging to the same bloc will run as part of a joint list, with the aim of gaining the largest single share of votes and becoming the ruling faction.
Were this method to be applied to the current elections, it is reasonable to assume that there would be a single large list on the Right, comprising the Likud, the Bayit Yehudi, the New Right, and Israel Beytenu, and also possibly Kulanu. In the Center-Left, the Labor Party would join with the Blue and White list. This would leave only the smaller and unmistakably sectoral parties to run on their own – the Arab and the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Reducing the level of political splintering in the Knesset and strengthening the larger parties would make the work of the Knesset more efficient and enhance governance. The bargaining power of the smaller factions in the coalition would be curtailed, governments would be smaller and more unified, and it would be easier for the ruling faction to steer the government in a coherent fashion.
It is important to note that this would also strengthen the opposition. Instead of the divided opposition we see today, the proposed system would create an opposition based on one large faction, which would be far more united and have greater capacity to offer a well-defined alternative to the government.
While this reform would be simple to introduce, it would make a huge difference and be able to prevent – or at the very least reduce – the frequent coalition crises that afflict governments in Israel, each of which threatens to lead to new elections.
The writer is director of the political reform program at the Israel Democracy Institute.