Does the System Work?

Pros and cons of the Israeli electoral system.

Print this page Print this page

This article looks at the efficacy of the Israeli electoral system. A description of how the system works can be found in the first part of this two-part article.

Advantages

The Israeli electoral system has several positive aspects in its favor as compared with other systems. These include:

1)      Systems like Israel's ensure minority representation. The proportional representation system is arguably one of the most democratic systems ever invented, ensuring that a broad range of different opinions get national expression in an elected body mirroring the views in society at large. In contrast, under the United States' winner-take-all district system it is theoretically possible, for example, to have a situation in which 49.9 percent of the country votes for the Democratic Party but fully 100 percent of the senators are Republicans. This would happen if 51.1 percent of the voters in every state vote for Republican Senate candidates and thus win each Senate contest. The proportional system is expressly designed to avoid distortions of this sort. It is especially important in a country such as Israel that has well-defined minority populations, such as the Arab population and the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) who might find themselves unfairly shut out of the political process under a different system.

knesset political system2)      Coalitions encourage compromises. When governments can only be formed by coalitions of different parties, government policies are determined by compromises between the different viewpoints represented in the government. This gives the system an automatic tendency to avoid extremist policies.

3)      Governments must keep in touch with national sentiments. Under the Israeli system, governments that apply policies that are very unpopular increase the chances that a vote of no confidence will be taken and vote their members out of office. Prime ministers and governments must therefore always stay on their toes and gauge how the electorate accepts their policies.

Disadvantages

Unfortunately, there are negatives too, and the Israeli system, like any other, has exhibited some problems.

1)      Proportional systems can lead to disproportionate magnification of power for small parties. Coalitions in Israel have frequently taken aboard parties with as little as two Knesset members, just in order to pass the magic number of 61 supporters in Knesset, the number needed to ensure a majority and form a government. In exchange for joining the government coalition, these small parties will get to control ministries and budgets, thus giving them enormous power beyond all proportion to the number of voters they represent. This has caused resentment in other segments of the Israeli public.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Ziv Hellman is a Jerusalem-based writer and mathematician. A former editor at the Jerusalem Post, Ziv was a founding member of Peace Watch--the watchdog group reporting on the implementation of the Oslo Agreements. He also led the Israeli elections observer team evaluating the Palestinian Authority elections.