Israel’s electoral system is in urgent need of reform - opinion

Post-election wheeling and dealing is actually built into the system. But even if these political maneuvers result in a working majority, voters’ interests are sacrificed.

RELIGIOUS ZIONIST Party leader Bezalel Smotrich and Shas Party head Arye Deri shake hands at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem on April 6. (photo credit: ALEX KOLOMOISKY/REUTERS)
RELIGIOUS ZIONIST Party leader Bezalel Smotrich and Shas Party head Arye Deri shake hands at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem on April 6.
(photo credit: ALEX KOLOMOISKY/REUTERS)
 Israel’s electoral system is no longer fit for its purpose. That is the obvious conclusion to be drawn from a political stalemate that has persisted for two years and resulted in four inconclusive general elections.
When Israel’s voters go to the polls, they are asked to choose the one party among the many competing – rarely less than 20, often many more – with whose policies they most agree. It has been described as “one of the purest forms of proportional rule,” since the number of Knesset seats that each party gains is almost exactly proportionate to the number of votes it obtains in the general election. To qualify for seats, a party must gain at least 3.25% of the total votes cast.
The downside is that the 120 Knesset seats are split between so many shades of political opinion that no one party can emerge as an outright winner. In the March election, for example, 13 parties qualified for Knesset seats out of the 39 competing.
So, after each election weeks are spent in backroom negotiations, while the leader chosen by the president as most likely to form a government attempts to gain sufficient support to command a majority in the Knesset.
In short, post-election wheeling and dealing is actually built into the system. But even if these political maneuvers result in a working majority, voters’ interests are sacrificed. The policies finally agreed between a cobbled-together majority can bear little resemblance to the policies that individual voters supported at the polls. Moreover, the concessions demanded by smaller parties in return for their support, including a ministerial post or two in the new government, look decidedly unsavory and lead to uneasy and often unstable political relationships.
The great enemy of change in any electoral system is vested interest. For many years there has been a general recognition that Israel’s electoral system would benefit from a fundamental re-examination. Various small changes have been introduced from time to time, but parties in power have consistently declined to grasp the nettle of real reform. 
Reform of any sort carries with it the danger of a loss of power, and the party list system is the epitome of political power in action. Under it, becoming an MK depends on climbing the greasy pole of the political system, “catching the eye” of the party leadership and getting a good position on the party list. It is a system notably deficient in any democratic element. Britain has a name for it: “the old boy network,” and it is currently under intense public scrutiny.
One major difference between Israel’s electoral system and that of most other Western democracies is the lack of any direct connection between the people who gain a seat in the Knesset and ordinary Israeli voters. Many nations acknowledge the need for some form of direct voter involvement in choosing their parliamentary representatives. US representatives and senators, for example, are voted into Congress by their home constituencies, and remain intimately connected to them.
Britain’s method, based wholly on that system, is virtually the complete opposite of Israel’s. Party lists are an unknown phenomenon. Members of Parliament in the UK each have to compete for the votes of their own electorate.
The United Kingdom – comprising England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – is divided into 650 constituencies, each of which elects one member of parliament. Any political party, provided it fulfills the necessary criteria, may put up candidates in any constituency and compete in the election. The candidate in each constituency who wins the most votes is elected, regardless of how many votes are cast for other candidates. This is known as “first past the post” (FPTP), and proportional representation (PR) does not feature. The idea of substituting PR for FPTP was put to the UK electorate in 2011 in a national referendum, and was overwhelmingly rejected.
FPTP is also popular across the United States, although other voting methods are also used locally. Like all electoral systems, it is far from perfect. Its main disadvantage in the UK is its failure to match the national voting pattern with seats in parliament. However, it nearly always results in one or other of the two major parties – Conservative or Labour – obtaining a clear majority.
As soon as the election results are known, the leader of the winning party becomes prime minister. Beholden to no one, he or she fills all ministerial posts within a few days, and the new government is up and running within a week. Except in rare cases, which do arise from time to time, there is no need for the leader of the winning party to negotiate with anyone about anything.
As for elected members of parliament, each is regarded by their constituents as “their” MP, whether or not they voted for him or her. All MPs hold regular “surgeries” in their constituency, where members of the public with problems can speak personally to their MP and ask for advice or help. The personal connection between MPs and their local areas is very strong.
Despite its disadvantages, Britain’s system was favored by David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s, and was the basis of a bill, tabled in June 1980, which proposed dividing Israel into 120 constituencies. It passed a preliminary reading but got no further.
Proposals for reform that combine the constituency concept with the proportionality of the present system have been put forward on a number of occasions. One interesting compromise idea was that Israel should be divided into 60 constituencies, each of which would elect one MK, while 60 seats would continue to be allocated by the present system. In short, each voter would make two choices: for a candidate and for a party. This bill also passed a first reading but subsequently foundered.
Despite a history replete with discouragement and failure, electoral reform in Israel is an unfinished saga. The inadequacies of the present system remain obvious. Another genuinely determined effort, supported by a consensus from within Israel’s body politic, must be made sooner or later in order to provide the nation with an electoral system truly worthy of it.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review whose latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. He blogs at a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.