Israeli politics fractured: The system needs fixing

It would appear that those on the Right have fully understood the rules of the game.

An Israeli boy, dressed in a Superman costume, escorts his mother behind a voting booth at a polling station in Tel Aviv March 17, 2015 (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
An Israeli boy, dressed in a Superman costume, escorts his mother behind a voting booth at a polling station in Tel Aviv March 17, 2015
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
It is commonly accepted that in order to defeat Netanyahu, the political parties in the center and on the Left must unite and present a single and clear alternative.  However, under the current system, this claim is simply not true.
According to the polls, the Likud is the largest party, with sizable margin over the other parties. The current situation, in which the center-left bloc is fragmented, has had an effect similar to that of the direct electoral system that was in place in Israel between 1996 and 2001. Many voters will tell themselves that Netanyahu will be elected in any case. They will feel free to vote for another party which has a chance of being included in the coalition, for example, one that will resist the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties or pursue a more socially oriented agenda and policy.
By contrast, in a two-bloc race, the elections would essentially become a referendum for and against Netanyahu. In that case, many of those who would otherwise allow themselves to defect to the center will stick to the Likud. Those from the center and the Left who believe a merger of parties would increase the total number of voters for their bloc should be reminded of the failure of the 2013 alliance between the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, which received fewer Knesset seats than the two parties did in total when they ran on separate lists in the 2009 and 2015 elections. The Likud coalition won when the race was presented as “Bibi versus Tzipi (Livni)” in the 2009 elections. And it won again when it faced the Zionist Union alliance in the 2015 elections. On the other hand, Netanyahu was almost defeated when he ran against two major opposition parties, Labor and Yesh Atid, in 2013.
It would appear that those on the Right have fully understood the rules of the game. The announcement by Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett of the formation of a new right-wing party that will take votes from the Likud – but perhaps also from parties such as Kulanu, Yisrael Beytenu and the new center-of-center parties – stems from their understanding that the system rewards splits, and that there are voters who want to strengthen the government’s more right-wing leanings.
Consolidating the parties into two major blocs should not be a question of political interests, but first and foremost, an issue of the need for governance. A comparative study conducted by Dr. Ofer Kenig at the Israel Democracy Institute shows that the number of Knesset seats held by the two largest parties – constituting 45% of the total number of seats – is very low when compared to the parallel percentage in 15 other parliamentary democracies.
THE CURRENT situation also differs from that of the past in Israel. The country’s political system began with a single dominant party. During the 1970s, it developed into a system with two major blocs. The current fragmentation has several negative effects: It grants extremist parties a degree of power that is disproportionate to their size; it leads to excessive preoccupation with “coalition management,” and to the allocation of over-sized budgets to various “sectors” in society; and it results in a split opposition that is unable to act effectively so as to offer an alternative to the government.
At the end of the day, democratic politics always involve aggregating interests and values, and building coalitions. The main question is how much of this is accomplished before the elections and how much after. For the sake of transparency, citizens should be able to identify the possible coalition scenarios prior to the elections. And for the sake of good governance, it would be better if the blocs with a real chance of forming the government were cohesive and coherent.
The only way to resolve the current state of affairs in Israeli politics is by offering incentives. The current Israeli system rewards splitting up both on the Right and on the Left. This is because each party and each major candidate can run on their own as long as they are certain that they will pass the electoral threshold, and so be beholden to no one but themselves.
In order to address this problem, we need to create a system of inverted incentives which – starting from the next elections and from then on – will solidify the political system into two main blocs. The Basic Law: The Government should be amended to stipulate that the president must automatically assign the task of forming the government to the head of the largest faction, with no need for a Knesset vote of investiture. This will give politicians an incentive to forge alliances before the elections and encourage citizens to cast their vote for the largest electoral list.
Of course, if there is a majority for the opposition in the Knesset, under the existing law, it is possible to replace the government on the very same day by establishing an alternative government supported by a majority of Knesset members. This avoids the prospect of repeated elections or of a government that is unable to function for an extended period of time.
The myth of unification is sustained by the absurd notion that the size of the largest party is the determining factor in winning the election. The truth is, what really counts is the size of the coalition that can be successfully created. In order for there to be a reasonable match between the size of the coalition and the size of the largest party, incentives should be provided to politicians to run together, and for voters to vote for the larger alliances.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Department of Political Science.