Reform Israel's election system to address regional needs - opinion

How do we fix this lack of attention towards regional needs? Here are two suggestions.

 A voting box in the last Israeli election in 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A voting box in the last Israeli election in 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Witness the recent four Israeli elections in less than two years. This created havoc in many areas of Israeli society. The economy suffered from uncertainty, government operations stymied due to lack of an approved budget, international relations stalled at critical times, worldwide embassy activities were curtailed, school children suffered and more. Also, it was an embarrassment on the world stage demonstrating that Israel – the great democracy in the Middle East – couldn’t get it together.

Now we can breathe another sigh of relief as an election was avoided after the state budget bill was passed into law earlier this month. The budget needed to pass by November 14 to prevent the Knesset from being automatically dispersed, which would have initiated elections in February 2022. The Knesset passed the 2021 state budget into law in a very narrow 61-59 vote followed by the passing of the 2022 state budget.

As The Jerusalem Post reported, “According to the coalition agreement, now that a budget has been passed, if elections are initiated for the remainder of the term, the caretaker prime minister will be Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and not [Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett.”

In just shy of two years, August 2023, the current coalition will rotate prime ministers. Will the coalition hold until then or after the rotation? Will this (or something else) send us to early elections again?

There is one easy fix to prevent this – but first, another issue facing the growing modern State of Israel needs to be addressed: regionalization. As the Israeli population rapidly grows and spreads out from the center of the country, there needs to be more regional representation.

 An empty Knesset plenum on October 4, 2021. (credit: NOAM MOSKOVICH) An empty Knesset plenum on October 4, 2021. (credit: NOAM MOSKOVICH)

The needs of Israelis who live up north are different than of those who are in the “Gaza envelope,” or the Negev, Judea, Samaria, or the Golan Heights. Those differences and needs range from infrastructure to schools to transportation to security, and more.

The party representatives in the Knesset are rightly focused on national and international issues. However, even though Israel is small in area, we are big in diversity, including terrain, security, economic opportunities, population density, ethnicity, etc. Attention must be paid to our individual and regional needs.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “The law recognizes three types of local authorities: municipalities, which provide the framework for urban centers with populations of over 20,000; local councils, which manage towns with populations of between 2,000 and 20,000; and regional councils, which are responsible for several villages grouped within a certain radius.

“The number of council members is determined by the Ministry of the Interior, according to the authority’s population. Currently, there are 73 municipalities, 124 local councils and 54 regional councils.

“All municipalities and local councils are united, on a voluntary basis, in a central body, the Union of Local Authorities, which represents them before the government, monitors relevant legislation in the Knesset and provides guidance on issues such as work agreements and legal affairs. Affiliated with the International Association of Municipalities, the union maintains ties with similar organizations throughout the world, and arranges twin cities programs and exchanges of international delegations.”

It should be noted that the “International Association of Municipalities” referenced above does not come up in a web search but the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel (masham.org.il) does. And it is a non-government organization.

HOW DO we fix this lack of attention towards regional needs? Here are two suggestions.

1. Allocate to regional representatives (via a parallel but separate ballot), one seat for each regional council from the current 120 seats of the Knesset. As of 2019, there are 54 such councils in Israel. There might be a need to increase the total seats so there is a balance between party allocation and regional allocation of seats.

2. Create another (parallel) legislative body whose members are regional representatives. Currently, the Israeli Knesset is defined as “unicameral” – having a single legislative or parliamentary chamber. Perhaps it is time for Israel to be “bicameral” and have another legislative or parliamentary chamber?

This is not a new or revolutionary idea.

The United States has a Senate and a House of Representatives that make up the two wings of the legislative branch. The business of the British Parliament takes place in two Houses: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Parliament of Canada has two chambers: the Senate and the House of Commons. Even Russia is bicameral with the Federation Council as the upper house and the State Duma as the lower house.

How the Israeli structure and interaction process would work would be up to an expert commission. Basically, the two Israeli houses’ work would be similar: making laws, checking the work of the government, and debating current issues.

However, unlike current the Knesset structure that is based on party mandates, the new second house would be based on regional representation. A formula should be developed that takes into consideration the ratio of population to landmass. This would ensure that representation is proportional and fair.

A new legislative house with a bias towards regionality will develop and promote laws that support the unique needs of the varied regions of the country, in cooperation with the Knesset.

Back to the issue of how to prevent multiple national elections because a viable coalition cannot be formed, which results in confusion, acrimony and extra economic burdens: raise the electoral threshold.

The electoral threshold is the minimum share of votes required in order to obtain representation in a parliament. To obtain representation in the Knesset, the current minimum electoral threshold during elections is 3.25% share of votes. Compared to other similar types of governments, it is on the low side. Raising the threshold in Israel has been done before, most recently in 2004 (2%) and 2014 (3.25%).

A higher threshold would create larger political clusters and fewer fractional parties, making it easier to form lasting coalitions in the future. The optimal number should be modeled by an expert panel, but should probably be around 5%. (Perhaps, that expert panel can also look into how the parties choose their lists. See Yohanan Plesner of the Israel Democracy Institute’s February 2019 article “How do primaries work and how could they be improved?”)

After the recent marathon of elections, Israelis, no matter their political persuasion, agree that the current election system is not working as smoothly as it should. Raising the electoral threshold would fix that. And adding a regionally biased house of representatives would better serve all Israeli citizens.

The writer is a former New York City advertising agency and marketing executive, who made aliyah in 2015 and lives in Ashkelon with his wife. He is semiretired and is an instructor at Rutgers University School of Communication & Information and a consultant. Follow on Twitter @davidslevine