Reform time

Smaller parties need to be encouraged to join larger parties. Voters need to be encouraged to choose larger, more mainstream parties.

Binyamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Binyamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
At a press conference to announce their coalition agreement, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and incoming Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz articulated four central goals. They plan to pass legislation that will obligate ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student to perform military or national service; they hope to pass a two-year fiscal budget; they want to advance “responsible” peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
The two men also vowed to advance electoral reform aimed at fostering political stability.
The incorporation of Kadima to create the broadest coalition government in Israeli history, with 94 MKs, presents a unique opportunity. As early as October 1948, just months after the creation of the state, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, called to change the electoral system.
About 10 bills calling for regional elections were presented to the Knesset between 1958 and 1988.
However, all such attempts at reform were torpedoed by small parties that were members of consecutive government coalitions – especially religious parties that stood to lose the most.
These parties presently take advantage of the fundamental instability and chronic divisions that characterize our extreme proportional representation government, with its relatively low 2-percent threshold for election to the Knesset (the Netherlands is one of the few countries with a lower threshold, at 0.67%).
These sorts of governments tend to encourage the creation of political parties – such as the Pensioners Party, religious parties or Shinui – with radical or narrow agendas that represent only a fraction of the population or have fleeting popularity. Government coalitions are created by pulling together a patchwork of diverse factions. These governments are plagued with divisions and instability. In many cases, a single party can bring down a government, giving it inordinate leveraging power. Politicians tend to be unknown sycophants willing to tow the party line but who are unconcerned with representing the voters since their reelection depends on internal party politics, not personal popularity.
It should come as no surprise that the average duration of Israeli governments between 2000 and 2009 was less than three years, much shorter than the world average. This has very bad ramifications for long-term government planning.
Now with a large, stable coalition, Netanyahu and Mofaz can act where previous political leaders failed. Neither Netanyahu nor Mofaz is known as a proponent of electoral reform. And during Tuesday’s press conference, both men were noticeably mum about the details of the proposed reforms. Also, the deadline set for drafting the reforms – the end of the year – seems unrealistically optimistic.
But the benefits of regional elections, at least for some of the Knesset’s seats, are clear. Leaders with strong grassroots backing, chosen for their unique talents, pragmatism and ability to get things done, will be brought into politics. These men and women will be obligated to represent their constituency, not the party hacks.
Raising the threshold is another important step that should be taken.
Until 1996, the two largest political parties combined consistently had more than 70 Knesset seats. Since 1999, the two largest political parties have had fewer than half the seats in the Knesset.
Smaller parties need to be encouraged to join larger parties. Voters need to be encouraged to choose larger, more mainstream parties.
Another reform that should be considered is increasing the number of Knesset seats. According to data presented by the Israel Democracy Institute, the ratio of MKs to citizens in Israel is one to 59,000, higher than in any comparatively sized European country.
The unprecedented size of the new government coalition and its consequent stability provides a unique opportunity to institute much-needed electoral reforms. We hope that Netanyahu and Mofaz will take advantage of this situation to help ensure that future governments enjoy similar stability.