Should Israel change its electoral system? - opinion

Undoubtedly Israel’s electoral system makes the formation of governments in Israel an arduous task, but what has turned it into an almost impossible one is Netanyahu.

PROTESTERS DEMONSTRATE outside the home of New Hope Party leader Gideon Sa’ar in Tel Aviv on Friday. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
PROTESTERS DEMONSTRATE outside the home of New Hope Party leader Gideon Sa’ar in Tel Aviv on Friday.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
One of Israel’s media commentators recently said our electoral system of absolute proportional representation had led to the four rounds of elections in 24 month.
No doubt, if we were to adopt the British system of single-member constituencies, with a “first past the post” method for determining the winner, one round of elections would have sufficed. This system usually favors the largest party or parties, and causes the under-representation of small parties.  In Israel’s case it would probably provide the Likud with a vast majority and decimate the left-wing, Arab and ultra-Orthodox parties, whose voters are either scattered all over the country or concentrated in a small number of locations. 
In the 1950s, when David Ben-Gurion was said to have considered such a system, the main argument of opponents was that Mapai could have gerrymandered electoral districts in such a way as to gain control over a vast majority of Knesset seats.
If we were to return to the direct election of the prime minister (which some commentators recommend), the system would also be greatly simplified, in so far as immediately after the elections the identity of the prime minister would be known. And if such elections were to have taken place on March 23, there is no doubt that Benjamin Netanyahu would have won a clear victory. Even if he would not have received an absolute majority, it is doubtful whether he would have faced a formidable alternative candidate. 
However, unlike a system of regional elections, the direct election of the prime minister was tried and dropped after the 2001 elections because of the havoc it had created by turning the largest parties into medium-sized ones, and encouraging some of the smaller parties to grow.
Undoubtedly Israel’s electoral system makes the formation of governments in Israel an arduous task, but what has turned it into an almost impossible one is Netanyahu. In fact, already after the elections to the 21st Knesset in April 2019, a variety of governments could have been formed by the Likud. Instead, Netanyahu insisted on forming a purely right-wing religious government based on the blind support of the ultra-Orthodox parties, for no other reason than that such a government suited his personal agenda of keeping most of the political power in his own hands, and of trying to wriggle out of being put on trial.
Netanyahu failed, even though at the time he was not yet under indictment, and the “anyone-but-Bibi” camp did not include a single right-wing party. His main problem was that the newly formed Blue and White received 35 seats – the same number as the Likud.  If the Likud had been led by anyone but Netanyahu, a solid bipartisan government could easily have been formed. It could have started to repair some of the damage caused by Netanyahu to the country’s social cohesion, welfare network, economic balance and foreign policy options, as well as to several of the pillars of Israel’s fragile democratic system.
Although it is not to be ruled out that this time Netanyahu will manage to form the government he covets, it will be a government without two liberal right-wing parties (Yisrael Beytenu and New Hope); including a parliamentary group made up of seven messianic and Kahanist members that owes its existence to Netanyahu bribing its leaders to run together, and “donating” a Likud seat (the 28th slot) to one of its members (MK Ofir Sapir). 
More than a third of the government’s members will represent homophobic and xenophobic sentiments, and reject the principle of equality for women, and it will owe its existence to a pragmatic Islamist party that will support it from the outside.
IN ORDER TO enable this nightmarish government to come into being, Netanyahu is willing to offer Yamina leader Naftali Bennett almost any ministerial position he might covet (except for the premiership), and full membership in the Likud and its institutions. He is willing to start calling New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar by his full name, rather than by a derogatory nickname, and to entice him into putting the past behind and “come home.” 
All of this came only a few days after falsely accusing Sa’ar of conniving with President Reuven Rivlin to foil Netanyahu being given the first shot at trying to form a government; only a few weeks after referring to him as being insignificant; after doing nothing to stop members of his party calling Sa’ar a traitor and interrupting election gatherings and rallies of New Hope in which Sa’ar was present. Netanyahu is also seeking individual deserters from the “anyone-but-Bibi” bloc.
Sa’ar has responded to Netanyahu with a resounding no, and given the fact that throughout the election campaign he stated that anyone who wants to see Netanyahu continue to serve as prime minister should not vote for New Hope, Netanyahu’s claim that Sa’ar has fraudulently taken right-wing votes and plans to use them to establish a left-wing government is nothing but an outright lie.
Bennett is a different kettle of fish. Though he has been hurt and humiliated by Netanyahu at least as much as Sa’ar, and has time and again stated that Netanyahu must be removed, he never once said that he will not sit in a government under Netanyahu, especially if the alternative is a fifth round of elections. 
Bennett’s dilemma is many-faceted.  He would like to turn into the leader of the Right in the post-Netanyahu era, and he has apparently been convinced that this can only be done from within the Likud.  In the current round he would like to serve as prime minister, preferably for a full term, but given the fact that he heads a party with only six Knesset seats he will find it difficult to reject an offer for rotation in the premiership. 
If a government will not be formed in the 24th Knesset, fifth elections are inevitable, and Bennett’s chances of surviving such elections at the head of Yamina are slim to non-existent. This makes his integration into the Likud seem attractive, though the experience of all the parties that opted for running as part of the Likud, or in a single list with the Likud, has been ruinous (at least in the short run), from David Levy’s Gesher and Raphael Eitan’s Tzomet in 1996, to Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu in 2012, and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu in 2019.
And what about Bennett’s option of leading a reform government made up of the “anyone-but-Bibi” bloc, for at least two years?  According to Netanyahu, such a government will be unstable and lacking in a clear direction, compared to what he offers. True, it will include an extremely diverse group of parties – from the liberal Right to the pragmatic Left – and will require the external support of at least part of the United Arab List. However, its members will be much more level-headed and pragmatic than those of the government favored by Netanyahu, and its chances of starting a healing process in the Israeli society are certainly much greater than those of Netanyahu’s sixth government.
The countdown for the formation of a new government is expected to start on Wednesday, or soon thereafter.
The writer is a retired researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center and the author of The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, soon to appear in English.