Israel's electoral system is leaving the country stuck in political logjam

Israel’s electoral system is simply not fit for purpose in the 2020s. Or, to be generous, it has outlived its usefulness.

ISRAEL’S ELECTORAL system is simply not fit for purpose in the 2020s. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
ISRAEL’S ELECTORAL system is simply not fit for purpose in the 2020s.
Israel has still not emerged from the ridiculous political logjam of 2019-20, which saw the nation making its way to polling stations three times within 12 months. This state of affairs came about simply because Israel’s electoral system twice failed to yield a workable government at the end of the polling process.
It seemed as though the political paralysis finally ended in May 2020, when the new government was announced. The controversial power-sharing deal called for Benjamin Netanyahu to serve as prime minister for the government’s first 18 months, to be replaced by Benny Gantz for the next 18 months. Their painfully constructed coalition deal could only come about after the country’s Supreme Court ruled it had no legal grounds to block it. But it was constructed in the first instance because the electoral system had produced a situation in which Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White parties were virtually neck and neck as regards seats.
The deal led immediately to the dissolution of Gantz’s alliance with his main partner, Yair Lapid, since it was only achieved by Gantz reneging on his central campaign promise not to serve under Netanyahu.
Despite the criticism, Gantz argued that teaming with Netanyahu offered the country its only way out of the prolonged stalemate and prevented Israel from being dragged once again to another costly election that would have been its fourth in just over a year. Yet here the nation is again, only seven months later, facing the prospect of still another excursion to the polls. Why?
One obvious reason demands to be aired: Israel’s electoral system is simply not fit for purpose in the 2020s. Or, to be generous, it has outlived its usefulness.
The eminent constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor has pointed out that Israel’s electoral system is not a considered structure, but a procedure hastily adopted in 1948, when the infant state was at war with its Arab neighbors. With no time or inclination to construct a new electoral model, elections to the Constituent Assembly, which became the first Knesset, were held by the same method that had been used in the pre-state period for elections to the Zionist Congress and to the elected assemblies of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Mandatory Palestine. But as Bogdanor points out, a system suitable for a voluntary organization is not necessarily equally suitable for a mature democracy.
When the Israeli electorate go to the polls, they are asked to choose the one party among the many competing – usually 20 or more – with whose policies they most agree. This system has been described as “one of the purest forms of proportional rule,” since the number of seats each party in the Knesset gains is almost exactly proportional to the number of votes the party obtains in the general election.
The inevitable downside is that the nation’s vote is fractured. With every shade of political opinion represented by Knesset seats, no one party can emerge as the outright winner. After each election, weeks are spent in backroom negotiations and deals, as the party with the most votes attempts to gain sufficient support from others to command a majority in the Knesset.
Attempts have been made from time to time to ameliorate the problem caused by too many small parties. Until 1992, a political party needed only 1% of the total votes cast to enter parliament. This was gradually raised – first to 1.5%, then to 2%, and more recently to 3.25% – which is still a low threshold of entry compared to similar electoral systems.
ONE MAJOR discrepancy between Israel’s electoral system and that of most other Western democracies is the absence of any constituency-based element. While many nations have adopted a combination of proportional representation (PR) and the direct election of representatives, the UK’s system is virtually the complete opposite of Israel’s.
Great Britain and Northern Ireland are 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 and compete in the election. The candidate who wins the most votes in each constituency is elected, regardless of how many votes were cast for other candidates. PR does not feature. The idea of substituting PR for first-past-the-post was put to the electorate in 2011 in a national referendum, and overwhelmingly rejected.
The UK system nearly always results in one or the other of the two major parties – Conservative or Labour – obtaining a clear majority. Its leader becomes prime minister and appoints all government ministers. Party lists are an unknown phenomenon. 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. This electoral system, like all electoral systems, is far from perfect. Its main disadvantage is its failure to match the national voting pattern with seats in parliament.
Proposals for reform in Israel’s electoral system combining the constituency concept with the proportionality of the present system have been put forward on three occasions – in 1958, 1972 and 1988. The last attempt, prepared by MK Mordechai Virshubski and signed by 43 others, offered two ideas. The more interesting proposed that 60 MKs would be elected in 60 constituencies, and 60 by the current system. In short, each elector would vote for both a candidate and a list. This bill also passed a first reading, but subsequently foundered.
Back in 2005, then-president Moshe Katsav set up a Presidential Commission for the Examination of the Governmental Structure, a forum of the country’s leading political scientists chaired by Hebrew University of Jerusalem president Menahem Magidor. The commission met regularly for more than a year, and it too finally favored a combined system, recommending that half of the Knesset should be elected directly within the country’s 17 districts, while the other half would be voted in by way of the current system.
The commission’s recommendations, like the earlier parliamentary bills proposing electoral reform, were not followed up. Nor indeed were subsequent attempts, such as the determined effort by Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson in 2006. Then chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Ben-Sasson set to work with a will. Undeterred by all the previous unsuccessful attempts, he declared, “This generation might be ready. At least I have to try.” Try he did, but his proposals were blocked by those who feared a loss of influence in any revised system.
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 to provide the nation with an electoral system truly worthy of it. Why not make a start?
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. He blogs at