Electoral reform that works

An increasingly large number of Israelis realize that the current political system is broken, a formula for gridlock and dysfunction.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot in the 2013 election[File] (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot in the 2013 election[File]
Israel is heading to general elections on March 17, 2015, barely two years after the last election, held in January 2013. There has been much hand-wringing in the Israeli press over the outrageous cost of the recent collapse of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition, with the total drain on the Israeli economy estimated at NIS 1.2 billion.
Israel has held five Knesset elections since 1999 – not including the one tentatively scheduled for March. The United Kingdom, the progenitor of Israel’s parliamentary democratic model, has held only three.
The Israeli public and political classes are well aware of the problems posed by Israel’s fractious parliamentary politics, and a number of solutions have been attempted.
Between 1996 and 2001, Israel held separate elections for the post of prime minister, but this system quickly proved unwieldy, as newly elected prime ministers were often forced to chair governments led by rival political parties, with predictably painful results. The latest trend is to increase the electoral threshold in a bid to prevent factions of only two or three members from entering the Knesset.
Aside from antagonizing supporters of small parties, raising the threshold misdiagnoses the malady ailing the Israeli election system.
Small parties like Meretz, Kadima and Balad did not cause the collapse of any Israeli governing coalition in recent memory. The problem is not an abundance of small factions, but the lack of a large, predominant party in a commanding position to form a coalition.
Current polls show Israelis from the center-right to the center-left scattering between 10 and 23 seats each on parties including Likud, Labor, Bayit Yehudi, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu and Moshe Kahlon’s yet to be named outfit. If this indeed occurs, the next coalition will likely last no longer than the previous one, being again compromised by the lack of a dominant party.
Fortunately, there is a deceptively simple solution to this problem, one that has not yet been suggested by Israeli pundits: 15 seats should be added to the Knesset, raising the number of members from 120 to 135. However, these 15 “bonus seats” would not be assigned by pure proportional representation, as the rest are – rather, they would be given automatically to the party that attains the largest number of votes, whether the margin of victory is 500 ballots or 50,000.
This would inspire two fundamental changes in the Israeli political system. First of all, awarding an extra 15 seats to the largest party all but assures that this party would finish the election with at least 35 seats, enough to constitute the majority within their own coalition, which in a 135-member Knesset would be 68 seats. This in turn would increase the longevity of the newly-elected Knesset, since the winning party would have many potential options if their coalition was felled by a defecting faction.
More importantly, the addition of these 15 Knesset seats would radically alter both voter behavior and the strategic calculus of Israeli politicos. Given that the winning party would now exercise a dominant influence on the next government, the primary concern for left- and right-wing figures alike would be to guarantee that a party of their persuasion occupies that pole position. Never again would we see a repeat of the 2009 election, where Tzipi Livni’s Kadima nipped the Likud by a single seat, but was excluded from power in favor of a Likud-Labor coalition.
With the bonus seats, we would see more party mergers along the lines of the 2013 Likud-Yisrael Beytenu alliance or the rumored Livni-Herzog pact, in order to ensure that a party of the Right/Left prevails on election night.
Israeli voters, too, would quickly absorb the meaning of the bonus seats. Those who previously voted for Meretz or for small nationalist factions would be tempted to switch to Labor or Likud respectively, in order to ensure that “the other side” would not form the government. Similarly, the spoiling potential of sectoral parties would be severely reduced. Purely Arab or haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties would be rendered less relevant, since they could never realistically emerge as the top party and thus attain the bonus seats. At the same time, mainstream parties would have added incentive to battle for Arab and haredi votes, since these could prove decisive in the race for pole position.
Overall, the bonus seats would encourage the growth of big-tent parties based on policy and ideology, rather than small or medium factions catering to religious and ethnic cleavages or charismatic leaders. Combined with a separate law to prohibit members of Knesset from switching parties mid-term, this would ensure that the government formed post-election reflects the wishes of the Israeli public, rather than the whims of the political class.
An increasingly large number of Israelis realize that the current political system is broken, a formula for gridlock and dysfunction.
Some will demand radical action such as a Knesset based on geographic constituencies; others will unconvincingly defend the status quo. Adding 15 seats to the Knesset and assigning them automatically to the largest party is a subtle and easy-to-understand reform that would have profound effects on Israel’s political stability. Once the dust settles and a new coalition is formed, it is a proposal that merits consideration.
The author is a student at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, pursuing his master’s degree in diplomacy. He previously studied international relations and Near and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Toronto.