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.
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.
2) 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.
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.
2) Coalitions can lead to incoherent policies or government inaction. Due to the fact that coalitions can include parties bringing to the government table different and sometimes contradictory ideologies, government policies in Israel have been known to be incoherent on many issues, with different ministers within the same government supporting opposing views. In the worst cases, governments can be paralyzed into inaction when bold moves are needed, because the members of the coalition cancel each others’ votes.
3) No-confidence votes can lead to instability. Small parties or even individual Knesset members within the coalition, who feel that they are not receiving enough of a budget, support for pet legislation, or attention can threaten to walk out of the coalition if the Prime Minister does not respond to their demands. If their pulling out of the coalition can indeed translate into a successful no-confidence vote and the collapse of the government, this is a threat no prime minister can ignore. Between 1996 and 2009, Israel had no fewer than four different prime ministers, each of whom complained that the amount of time and effort needed to deal with the near constant mini-crises created by coalition members come at the expense of resources needed to deal with true crises in the affairs of state.
In April 1990, Israelis watched with growing unease a drama unfolding in the Knesset. Shimon Peres had a month earlier toppled the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir by a vote of no-confidence, and Peres was attempting to form a new government with himself at the helm, without calling for new elections. At the last minute, Peres fell short of a majority in the Knesset by one vote, and Shamir retained his position. But Peres’ maneuver did succeed in catalyzing broad sentiments in favor of electoral reform. How could it happen, many Israelis asked themselves, that the identity of the prime minister and composition of the government could possibly be changed thoroughly by the actions of 120 members of the Knesset, without the issue being brought to a vote before the collective public?
Ever since then, the question of whether the system works and how it can be improved has been a regular subject of discourse in Israel. Many people express great dissatisfaction with the system and the weaknesses they see in it, but there has been no agreement on the question of how to reform the system.
In 1996, there was an attempt at major electoral reform — the direct election of the prime minister, in which voters voted for individual prime minister candidates separate from the vote for parties vying for Knesset seats. However, given the short and turbulent terms of the two prime ministers elected under this system, the direct elections concept was discontinued following Ariel Sharon’s election to prime minister in 2001. The previous system was restored, returning electoral reform to square one.
Among the ideas perennially suggested to reform the Israeli political system is the replacement of proportional representation with the Anglo-American system of district representatives. This would be accomplished by dividing Israel into 120 districts, each with one Knesset member. The country would be led by a directly elected prime minister who would serve under a mandate from the people rather than being dependent on tenuous and shifting coalitions.
A counter-claim in defense of the proportional representation system points to the fact that district systems have their downsides too. Gerrymandering–the drawing of district boundaries in order to reduce or magnify the representation of a particular segment of society–is always a concern in district representation, one that is absent in proportional representation systems. Another concern is that representatives of particular districts might favor the interests of their constituents above national considerations.
In response to these objections, a compromise suggestion has been raised, which is based on Central European electoral systems of recent vintage. This idea calls for half of the Knesset members to be district representatives, while the other half would be “at-large” members elected under a proportional system, thus attaining the best of both systems.
The half-and-half proposal is currently only one suggestion out of many being discussed by Israelis. Meanwhile, the electoral system remains the same proportional system it has been since the founding of the state, with all the attendant challenges. The next Israeli prime minister will likely need the fortitude to deal with the same type of coalition pressures with which all his predecessors struggled.
Pronounced: k’NESS-et, Origin: Hebrew, Israel’s parliament, comprising 120 seats.
Pronounced: eetz-KHAHK, Origin: Hebrew, Hebrew name for Isaac.