For Zion's Sake: Don’t hate the players, hate the political system

Each of the players extorted enough from the prime minister to enshrine himself as the hero of his base, but secured the disdain of all the others.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) shakes hands with Bayit Yehudi chief Naftali Bennett (photo credit: TWITTER / TAL SCHNEIDER)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) shakes hands with Bayit Yehudi chief Naftali Bennett
(photo credit: TWITTER / TAL SCHNEIDER)
Disgusted by the shameless deal-making and ministry grabbing on display as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed his coalition? You should be.
The Likud won the most seats any single party has won in the past four elections and six more than its closest competitor. Party chairmen representing 67 of the Knesset’s 120 members recommended Netanyahu to form a government.
Yet none of those chairmen would agree to join his coalition until mere days, even hours, before the statutory deadline. Not until they got their pound of flesh in the form of ministries for politicians who, in many cases, have no special expertise to match the responsibilities they will assume, policy commitments (usually budgetary) which favor their voting blocs (at the expense of others) and committee chairmanships to push through their agendas.
Each of the players extorted enough from the prime minister to enshrine himself as the hero of his base, but secured the disdain of all the others.
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Even Avigdor Lieberman, who proved too weak to fight the pack for a share of the meat, played the hero by declaring himself above it all. (One principle he abandoned, however, was his statist preference for stable government.) But don’t hate the players, hate the political system.
The party chairmen who dragged negotiations down to the wire had little choice. To stay relevant, they must prove to their voters that they can deliver.
Scoring ministries and Knesset committees, and inserting their platforms into coalition agreements is necessary to do that. If they don’t attempt to extort the prime minister during coalition negotiations, they leave their sectors little reason to vote for their party as opposed to the party of the man they recommended to form the government.
That’s democracy and electoral accountability at work in a single-district, proportional party list system: a sectarian battle royale in which government stability hinges on politicians’ ability to simultaneously wage a war of all against all while jointly governing a country.
But it does not have to be this way. And in fact, there was never a real decision that it should be.
In Mandatory Palestine, the Yishuv had its own limited internal administration. Palestinian Jewry elected an “Assembly of Representatives” which in turn chose a National Council (which in turn chose an executive committee). A 1930 mandatory law provided that voters would choose representatives by voting for party lists as part of a single national district. Sound familiar? As the late Emmanuel Rackman noted in his 1954 study on “Israel’s Emerging Constitution,” when the process of drafting a constitution began, the various political parties at the time “assumed that the system...would continue with some modification.”
And so without much debate, it did continue. Not because it was the only option or the best option, but because, like so many things that refuse to change, that’s the way it was. The other option, a district-based electoral system, however, would function far better.
A district system would automatically knock out many small- and mid-sized parties and allow for the leading party to earn a large plurality of the legislature, if not the majority. The prime minister would not be beholden to a plethora of sectarian interests and politicians to form his government or to keep it afloat.
While identity politics cannot be banished from a diverse society, in a district system such political strategies would be less compelling. In our current single-district system, parties can and are encouraged to draw votes from all across the country. Identity politics is the best way to do that.
District representatives, however, would need to appeal to as much of their district as possible, which would not necessarily be homogeneous. The representative’s vote in the parliament would thus represent a coalition of interests that more closely reflects the nation as a whole than the sectarian parties of today.
This would also encourage politicians to seek the backing of larger, national parties which have the potential to appeal to broader audiences.
The party chairmen demanding their supposed fair share would be replaced with a far larger number of representatives who expect less, have less to prove, and are accountable to a voting bloc which does not necessarily reflect any particular sector.
At the same time, district-based elections would preserve minority voices, since the districts would be small (120 is not a magic number) and every voter, and every voting bloc in that district, could be the key to victory. In the United States for instance, the Black vote, the Jewish vote, the Hispanic vote, the senior citizen vote, etc., are all carefully considered and sought out by politicians. Yet leading American politicians cannot typically make themselves the voice of a particular sector for fear of losing the support of the others.
Thus, if a district system were adopted in Israel, the leading politicians would no longer have an interest in being the heroes of one sector and the shame of all the rest. Instead they would more often be encouraged to focus on the common interests of a number of groups. That kind of attitude would leave all voters much less frustrated, and a little more hopeful, when a government is formed.
The writer is an attorney, a Likud Central Committee member and director of Likud Anglos.