A voice for the citizen

Contrary to popular wisdom, the Hebrew language really does have a phrase for political constituency.

israel 60 blurred 88 (photo credit: )
israel 60 blurred 88
(photo credit: )
Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but we have a long way to go before we can claim to have a genuinely representative form of government. Our aspirations were set back on Sunday in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, when a bipartisan Knesset bill to reform the electoral system and allow 30 to 60 Knesset members to be elected by district was torpedoed. The remaining MKs would have been chosen under the current proportional method. Backing for the reform came from Kadima, Labor and Likud, while the torpedoing was the handiwork of MK Meshulam Nahari of Shas, the Sephardi Orthodox party. The wishes of a single party with 12 parliamentary seats proved stronger than the combined efforts of parties with a total of 73 mandates - 84 counting Israel Beiteinu, which also backs electoral reform - because, as a coalition member, Shas has veto power over legislation which would modify "constitutional" Basic Law. Shas likely opposed the bill out of fear that its electoral fortunes would suffer under a reformed system, though it claimed it voted against because it had not been sufficiently consulted. As reported in The Jerusalem Post - no other newspaper ran this story on its front page - the initiators of the bill included Knesset Law Committee chair Menachem Ben-Sasson of Kadima, Gideon Sa'ar and Michael Eitan of Likud, and Labor MKs Ophir Paz-Pines and Eitan Cabel. It is virtually unprecedented for so diverse a group of legislators to unite behind such far-reaching legislation. THE CASE for electoral reform is painfully clear: A system which in the previous century brought the likes of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin to power today attracts far more mediocre personalities even as it drives honest and decent people away. The way we elect our leaders is also directly connected to why it is so hard to govern effectively, why so many Israelis feel alienated from the political system, and why average citizens have nowhere to turn with their grievances. Public opinion surveys invariably show that a majority of Israelis support some form of district representation. And a commission headed by Hebrew University president Menachem Magidor which thoroughly examined our electoral system for 17 months also recommended, last year, reforms even more far-reaching than those now being put forward by Kadima, Labor and Likud. Magidor wanted to see half the Knesset - 60 MKs - directly elected in 17 districts. Each district would be represented by two to five MKs, the other half of the Knesset being elected by the proportional approach. CONSTITUENCY representation is an essential ingredient in representative government. In the US, most members of the House of Representatives spend the bulk of their resources and energies on constituent services. Indeed, in just about every other democracy in the world voters have a particular politician who is accountable to them. Moving away from the pure proportional system would also make Israeli politics less fragmented - and perhaps less ill-tempered - because a winner-take-all constituency system discourages single-issue parties that thrive on parochialism and abhor compromise. Smaller parties would fall by the wayside. Major parties would focus on the good of the many over the interests of the few. Yet to attract voters, they would nevertheless have an incentive to embrace at least some of the causes of today's smaller parties. With constituency representation comes direct accountability. It does not guarantee the absence of corruption, or that all politicians elected by district will selflessly devote themselves to the people they represent - but it does mean that good politicians could be rewarded and bad ones kicked out of office. THE GOOD news is that the bill's defeat can yet be reversed. Ben-Sasson can still use the clout that comes with his committee chairmanship to maneuver around what observers suggest only appears to be a legislative dead-end. And as a last resort, the Knesset could support a private member's version of the bill vetoed by Shas. Contrary to popular wisdom, the Hebrew language really does have a phrase for political constituency - mehoz bechira. Now if we could only convince our politicians that accountability is not an alien concept...