Israel’s electoral mess

The only way the minority parties can be defeated is by enough big parties which can agree to change the system. Who can take the message to them? What we need is an Electoral Reform Movement.

Great generic picture of Knesset 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Great generic picture of Knesset 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Jerusalem, October 17, 2012 – It seems incredible that we have to face up to another election under Israel’s appalling electoral system.
For half a year, we will go through the paralyzing business that it is. Weeks of selection committees and then the appearance of the same old faces. Then an election with no clear result and a horrible feeling that you have wasted your time as the disgusting political trading takes another three months.
Why do the Israeli people have this extraordinary patience? Quite simply, nobody offers a way out. The media seldom discusses electoral reform. There is the occasional dim remark that perhaps electoral districts would be better. Some years ago, a poll showed that 60 percent of those asked favored electoral districts.
But none of the parties or the leaders or the new performers has a word to say on this question. The reason is the belief that there is nothing to be done. The proportional representation system was set in concrete decades ago and the result is clear.
Minority papers dominate our parliament and government because of the balance of power syndrome. Nobody is game to take them on because they not only have their own votes, they penetrate into the major parties.
We Anglos feel very deeply about this because most of us believe that we came from better systems. An American Israeli will tell you that the American system is the best in the world. Those of us who grew up with the Westminster system, in Britain and the nations that grew out of Britain, know different but we are polite to our American cousins.
But in Israel we come up against a stone wall. Britain is a good example because the idée fixe in Israel is that the House of Commons is not a democratic institution because there can be a government in power that did not win a majority of total votes. That’s because of what they call First Past the Post.
Nobody ever points out that there are other systems that do provide a majority – second rounds for the two leading candidates and preference voting where, if there isn’t a majority winner, the people have voted for all the candidates, for example.
But no! In Israel the system is perfect and based on long experience going back into Poland more than a century ago. The Israelis stand by, enjoying their self-confidence while other governments using the same system rise and fall and waste their energies on coalition struggles.
Well, I don’t believe that there is any use in advocating the American or British systems.
There are plenty of prejudices in the background.
What should be done in Israel is to simply advocate voting in electoral districts and the idea of what the British call “our local member” and the Americans call “our man in Congress.” The politician standing for election in an electoral district is turned into a different kind of animal as he or she tries to win the votes of their fellow citizens. They won’t get there by buttering up Central Committee members and the party elite.
They may have their support by they still have to go out and persuade a majority of the 30,000 or 40,000 voters in their electorate. This is the important difference and many in Israel think this way.
Remember the people in the far north who in the midst of Hezbollah rockets falling around them, said they wished they had a local member.
All this is very simple and obvious (one would think) but there are other factors. If there were 120 electorates, there would be more powerful major parties. It takes work and effort to set up candidates in all or most of those electorates – parties with national appeal. How much easier is it to set up a narrow-based party, whether religious, right or left wing, that can sweep up the faithful from right across the country. Imagine a Shas candidate standing in a local election who figures he has 40 percent of the vote. He will have to change his stance a bit to get other votes.
The present system encourages politicians to play the usual game. Take Yair Lapid.
He thinks that with his television personality and a few good ideas, he can get together a little bloc of votes and then jump into a minister’s job. Not for him the long climb through the ranks of a major party. Or Ehud Barak.
Facing political oblivion, he’s planning for a handful (or half a handful) of seats so that he can stay in his job and, with luck, hold a balance of power.
The truth is that the electorate system is more fun, more involving for the humble citizen. For the moment in the voting booth, he or she feels power and engagement.
There are the names. There is the name of the candidate to be preferred. Ever afterward, the voter remembers that name! What do we have today? A single letter from the alphabet on a tiny piece of paper. What was that letter? I can’t remember! The battle to develop a national party, with a national policy, which could win seats in electorates across the country is a different challenge.
It should be the challenge faced by our major parties.
The only way the minority parties can be defeated is by enough big parties which can agree to change the system.
Who can take the message to them? What we need is an Electoral Reform Movement.
Should it be a political party, standing for the Knesset? Perish the thought. It must be a national movement, united in a single objective and free of any of the ambitions of the minor parties.
The Anglo community in Israel should play a leading part in this movement. There is a great deal of expertise on the subject amongst these olim. They should have their say.

The writer is a veteran political reporter and foreign correspondent who has lived and worked in Israel for 25 years.