Israel’s electoral system needs reform

Since the election of the first Knesset in 1949, numerous attempts have been made to reform the system.

Israeli election ballots [File] (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israeli election ballots [File]
Israel, we are frequently told, is the only democracy in the Middle East. It is also the only democracy in the world, apart from the Netherlands, without a constituency electoral system, there being just one national constituency for elections to the Knesset. In consequence there is less contact between members of the legislature and the voters than in most democracies and, by contrast with British MPs or members of Congress in the United States, members of the Knesset are not well positioned to act as mediators between the aggrieved citizen and the bureaucracy.
The weaknesses of such a system were graphically predicted by the German sociologist Max Weber: “Within a country-wide proportional list system only two types of nomination systems and leadership patterns may evolve: either a charismatic leadership backed by a party machine, or a nomination system based on manipulation and bargaining by party politicians and functionaries.” Under David Ben-Gurion and perhaps Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli politics has approximated to the first pattern, while at other times it has approached the second.
Of course, no one really chose the Israeli electoral system. When, in 1948, a decision had to be made as to what it should be, the infant state was at war with its Arab neighbors. There was no time for reflection. So 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 a system suitable for a voluntary organization is not necessarily equally suitable for a mature democracy.
Since the election of the first Knesset in 1949, numerous attempts have been made to reform the system. Ben-Gurion favored the British first past the post system to create stable and responsible government and, above all, a sense of statehood – mamlachtiut – among a hitherto dispersed people. It is perhaps no coincidence that such a system would have greatly favored Ben-Gurion’s own Mapai Party, the largest party in the early years of the state.
Few political scientists would agree with Ben-Gurion that the first past the post system would be right for Israel, a highly diverse and segmented society divided, as President Reuven Rivlin has pointed out, into four different “tribes.”
For the British system does not give effective representation to minorities.
In the last general election in 2015, the United Kingdom Independence Party gained one-eighths of the vote, but just one out of 650 seats in the House of Commons.
The Scottish National Party gained 56 of the 59 Scottish seats on just 50 percent of the Scottish vote. Israel needs an electoral system which reflects its diversity rather than distorting it.
Many Israelis look with favor at the German electoral system, under which the elector has two votes, one for a closed regional list, but another for a single-member constituency member, elected by first past the post. It is the total votes for the party list, subject to a national threshold – currently 5% – which determines a party’s level of representation in the Bundestag. Britain has adopted variants of this system for subordinate bodies such as the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales and the London Assembly.
But this system too would not be suitable for Israel. It would do little to constrain the power of the party machine which would continue to draw up a national list; and, given the fragmentation of Israeli society and the large number of political parties, constituency MKs would probably represent only a minority of their constituents. The need in Israel is to open up the system, not to restrict it.
For this reason, Israel should consider adopting a proportional representation system with multi-member constituencies as in the Scandinavian democracies. To achieve full proportionality, such systems can be supplemented by “topping up,” i.e. adding a few members from a national list for under-represented parties which surmount the national threshold – 2% in Denmark, 4% in Sweden.
These systems have the advantage that constituencies can follow natural or established boundaries.
Israel could be divided into 14 constituencies, reflecting already established administrative districts. Tel Aviv might be one constituency returning perhaps 10 members and Haifa a single constituency returning six members. No special provision for boundary drawing is necessary.
When population increases or decreases, there is no need to alter boundaries, but merely to increase or decrease the number of members returned in a particular constituency.
This would remove fears held by many Israelis that a constituency system would encourage corruption or gerrymandering.
A multi-member constituency system would also weaken central party bureaucracies and make possible a greater degree of choice of candidate on the part of the voter. Constituency lists need not be ordered, but could simply group together the candidates of a party, allowing the voters to choose which candidates they favored, as in Finland, Luxembourg and Switzerland. In any case, parties would have to present balanced lists. In a six member constituency, it would be no use presenting six secular Jewish males.
To maximize a party’s vote, it would need to prevent a diversified and balanced ticket, in which all significant groups were represented. That would help to ensure a better balance between the various “tribes” identified by President Rivlin.
The Arab minority would be particularly benefited with more effective local representation.
There would be more competition between Arab candidates, and candidates might compete with each other on the issue of who is best placed to secure economic resources for Arab towns and villages.
Finally, a constituency system could serve to humanize the bureaucracy. Israelis are not alone in finding the regulations of the modern administrative state complex and difficult to negotiate. But constituency MKs could act, as MPs do in Britain, as intermediaries between the voter and the administration, representing their constituents in disputes with the bureaucracy or the welfare authorities. That would improve citizen efficacy.
Israel’s closed political system worked well during the early years of the state since the founding fathers and the Labour/Zionist leadership enjoyed great prestige and authority.
Political scientist Itzhak Galnoor has written that “The main feature and source of strength of the Israeli political system from the pre-state period until the mid 1960s was reliance on the power of organizations and institutions rather than on the direct support of the voters.” Such a system was bound to be undermined as a successor generation, lacking the heroic achievements of the founding fathers, came to the fore, and as a new individualistic ethic came to replace the socialism of the early days.
A constituency electoral system would reflect this ideological change. In doing so, it would assist in the modernization of Israeli democracy and in the integration of the various “tribes” into Israeli society.
The author is a professor of government at King’s College, London and a member of the Israel Democracy Institute’s International Advisory Council.
But this article represents his own views which are not necessarily shared by the institute.