Plenty of brakes but no engine

Likud, Kadima, Israel Beiteinu and Labor must join hands and agree on electoral reform .

netanyahu livni 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu livni 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
As the coalition negotiations enter into their familiar despair stage, and as the public becomes more and more aware that no conceivable Israeli government will be effective or viable, it is time to dwell once more on our blighted electoral system. As a matter of fact, the election results confirmed preexisting fears. Israel has lost its capacity to produce durable parliaments and functioning governments. Some important points ought to be made: First, during the period when the prime minister was directly elected, that system was blamed for splintering the Knesset and for reducing the size of the two big parties. Now, after having returned fully to the old parliamentary system, we realize that the decline of both parties is an ongoing process with deep roots in Israeli society. Second, Israel has no real executive branch: it has all the trappings of a parliamentary democracy, but it has no government. Furthermore, many leaders, journalists and lawyers have forgotten the elementary rule - i.e., that it's the duty of the government to govern; that without rule, there is no rule of law. Yes, we do have checks and balances - legal advisors galore, commissions of inquiry, comptrollers, petitions to the high-court, a watchful press - but we have nothing to check and counterbalance. Plenty of brakes and no engine. The test is simple - can any conceivable government carry out its decisions? Can any government fulfill the Israeli undertaking to evacuate unlawful settlements? Could any Israeli government carry out any national project such as the canal (which transports Kinneret water to the Negev)? The answer is a resounding "No." Third, if the system is not altered, we can expect more of the same: The true rulers of the Knesset will not be the parties representing the majority, but the small swing parties without whom there is no coalition. AND THERE is another conclusion: We live in two entirely different worlds - that of the media and academe, and that of polling booths. The first world is ruled almost exclusively by the Left, and in it the Right is hardly audible. Here Meretz is queen; in the social sciences, Zionism has become a semi-clandestine underground. In the second world, that of the polling booth, the situation is reversed. Actually an inverse relationship exists between the two worlds: The louder and shriller the voices of the media and academe, the stronger the Right becomes on election day. Meretz - a party to which I belonged for many years - paid the price for deluding itself that if it was popular with the first world, all was well. This is the honey-trap into which many an Israeli politician falls: They mistake the optical illusion of the radical Left's power in the academe and media for popular support. WHAT IS TO be done? The only practical way out is for all middle-sized parties - Likud, Kadima, Israel Beiteinu and Labor - to join hands and agree on an electoral reform that would save Israel from a series of dead-end governments reminiscent of the French Third Republic on the eve of World War II. The leaders of these parties must realize that it is the function of any democracy to arrive at a compromise between representation and effectiveness and that Israel's unique, purely proportional system achieves neither. My proposition for reform would include: 1) raising the election threshold from 2 to 4 percent, the minimal norm in most parliamentary democracies; 2) the leader of the party with the plurality vote being automatically nominated prime minister - with, of course, the possibility of being replaced by a Knesset majority; 3) introducing multiple-member constituencies in which a certain percentage of Knesset members would be elected (e.g., a third of Knesset members in four-member constituencies), thus establishing both personal accountability and encouraging small parties to unite or merge into bigger parties if they want to be elected in constituencies; 4) avoiding the primary system, which has given undue power to radical party activists, and replacing it with the Dutch system of allowing voters to erase the names of candidates, thus giving them a direct say in the composition of their party list. These are not dramatic changes, but in the opinion of this writer, they will dramatically change the future of Israeli politics. Unless we put an end to our present system, it will put an end to Israel's democracy. The writer is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (Israel), a former minister of education and Knesset member, and the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.