The 2019 election merry-go-round

Are two elections in one year a sign that Israel should change its electoral system?

Legislators deliberate in the Session Hall of Parliament of Finland (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Legislators deliberate in the Session Hall of Parliament of Finland
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
While seated around a table recently with friends, our host asked each guest who they thought would be Israel’s next prime minister. While this appeared to be a straight and simple question, the discussion evolved into the deeper challenges facing Israeli society.
The guests consisted of an Israeli-born couple with three daughters – all in their 20’s – one married with a high flying job, one an officer in the army and one at university, plus their grandmother. There was a general consensus that the time had come for a change of leadership. The grandmother felt Netanyahu should be offered the opportunity to retire gracefully with a pardon for his alleged criminal transgressions. The younger element felt this was wrong and that a leader should set an example of honest behavior; if found guilty he should be treated as any other citizen (perhaps even more so) with the need to pay the full price for his criminal offense. The second consensus was that anyone holding public office that is found guilty of a crime should never be allowed to hold public office in the future – referencing Interior Minister Aryeh Deri.
One daughter felt that there were deeply worrying elements within Israeli society – she cited, in particular, a racist attitude adopted by far too many toward Israelis of an Ethiopian background. She also expressed concern at the negativity shown towards Israeli Arabs.
This led on to the question as to whether the Blue and White party had been correct in its negative response to the offer, made by Joint List head Ayman Odeh, of being open to join a coalition headed by Blue and White. Perhaps the time had come to include Arab parties within the government. Israeli Arabs are 20% of the population and play a dynamic role within Israeli society, but especially within the country’s health service. Back in February, prior to the April election, former Arab Israeli Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran condemned Netanyahu’s negativity to the idea that Gantz and Lapid might consider a coalition with the Arab parties. Gantz has now been given the opportunity to form a government. While vowing to form a liberal unity government he wants to reach out to the Arab and religious-Zionist sectors. Could this mean they might become part of his coalition?
While recognizing that segments of the Joint List prefer to concentrate on the Palestinian question, rather than their own Israeli Arab constituents, perhaps, if in government, they could be pressured into giving priority to the needs of their constituents. For sure, the recent demonstrations in the Arab sector demanding more police protection against increased violence within their community should be heard. It is somewhat disturbing when two brothers are shot dead in the Arab village of Majd el-Kurum that it took over one hour for the ambulance to arrive and five hours before the police appeared. One can understand the anger of the Arab community, who remain unprotected against violence within their towns and villages which has reached unprecedented levels in recent years.
One of the most disturbing elements of these past two elections is that the country has been left without a fully working government since well before April. Inevitably, this affects the entire population from children at school to the elderly – many of whom are Holocaust survivors – ending their days in dire poverty.
Frequent elections bring frequent changes of ministers and when there is a too frequent change in the Education Ministry, it inevitably will affect the standard of education our children receive. As a country, priding itself on being the Start-Up Nation, we should be asking how this nation will look in the future when a recent report shows that Israel spends less on education per student than most OECD countries.
The April and September election results clearly show that the electorate voted primarily for two parties, namely, Blue and White and Likud. These are the parties that should form a unity government. However, Netanyahu’s creation of “his” bloc of 55 embracing Likud and ultra-religious parties appears to be a contributing factor in the inability to bring the two sides together.
At the heart of the challenge in forming a government is an electoral system that prevents a clear winner resulting in the formation of a coalition where schools continue to exist, devoid of core subjects for their pupils, ensuring their graduates will be a drain on the general population. It is unacceptable that the government, under threat from its minority members withdrawing from government, is obliged to contribute substantial funding to schools producing those unable to earn a living. An additional reality is that the current electoral system eliminates the need of any potential Member of Knesset to consider the voter’s priorities.
After two failed elections, with a possibility of a third in the offing, the time has come to find a way of creating a stable government able to concentrate on improving the lives of its citizens rather than concentrating on how best for each politician to stick to his/her seat. How refreshing it would have been had the various parties said what they intended to do for the country and its population – instead it was a case of “Right or Left?” or are we “For or against Netanyahu?” The time has come for this country to embrace a different electoral system. While the current system appears to be democratic, since each sector of the electorate is represented, in practice it leads to coalition governments where minority parties often call the tune.
To seek guidance as to how Israel might amend its electoral system, the Magazine contacted Vernon Bogdanor,  Professor of Government at King’s College London and a member of the International Advisory Committee of the Israel Democracy Institute. Bogdanor feels that either the Finnish or the Swedish system could prove beneficial for Israel. He points out that in 1948, no one really chose the Israeli system – the infant state was at war with its Arab neighbors, so there was little time for reflection. The method chosen was based on the pre-state period for elections to the Zionist Congress. Bogdanor states that a system suitable for a voluntary organization is not necessarily suitable for a mature democracy. Over the years, various attempts have been made to change the system, to little or no avail.
The Finnish system, favored by Bogdanor, combines a constituency system of proportional representation with intra-party choice of candidate. It could, therefore, secure for Israel the best of both worlds – representation of all significant groups in Israeli society together with constituency accountability for members of the Knesset.
Israel is no longer an infant state. We are a country that has achieved much. We are an example to the world through our Research and Development, our hi-tech industry and the willingness to help other countries both in times of peace and times of crisis. How often are we the first to bring our mobile hospitals and skilled help when nature’s strong destructive force hits a country?
As we witness an unprecedented rise in antisemitism worldwide, we have a duty to ensure that the one Jewish State remains strong and vibrant. The time is long overdue for change in our electoral system that will allow governance.
In the words of Hillel: “If not now, when?”
The writer is public relations chairwoman of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.