Can Israel’s Electoral System Be Fixed?

January, 18 2013

Try as he might, David Ben-Gurion could not reform Israel’s electoral system, which gives extraordinary power to small parties. Today, a new generation of reformers takes on the challenge.

There was a reason that Israel’s wild-haired, hardheaded founding father and first prime minister named himself Ben-Gurion, Hebrew for son of a young lion. Born David Grun, the charismatic Polish-born leader with a forceful personality and a streak of realpolitik was accustomed to confronting difficult problems—and having his way with them. One of the greatest challenges he faced was transforming the fledgling country’s political system.

The electoral process aroused in Ben-Gurion more anger and annoyance than any other institution he took part in creating. “In our electoral system,” he said in 1954, “the citizen has no right to choose his representatives. The candidates are selected not by the voter but by a central party committee. Our ballot system is a farce and worse, it is an abuse of democracy.” Four years later, in a speech to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, he contended that the country employed a “bad democratic system” whose electoral procedures were “rotten and destructive.”

His words were prophetic. Israel has undergone immense change since its creation in 1948. Its population has grown ten-fold, its borders have shifted, its kibbutz movement and socialist orientation have faded and have been replaced by religious settlements and an ardor for high-tech, and it has made more enemies and fewer friends than it wished for. But almost 40 years after Ben-Gurion left politics, the Jewish state’s electoral system—perhaps the only thing that Israel’s first generation might have expected to change—remains largely untouched.

Alongside the electoral systems of Italy and Weimar Germany—the latter of which helped smooth the way for the Nazis’ ascendance—Israel’s purely proportionate system will likely go down in history as one of the world’s worst. Unlike the United States or European countries, which are divided into voting districts, all of Israel is treated as a single district with 120 representatives. In contrast to Germany or Turkey, where a political party can gain a seat in parliament if it garners five and 10 percent of the national vote, respectively, a party in Israel is guaranteed a place in the Knesset if it obtains a mere two percent. Since no single party ever wins a majority of Knesset seats, large parties depend on support from small ones to form coalitions, giving the small—sometimes fringe—parties? disproportionate influence. Israel has seen over 30 governments, each comprised of 10 to 15 parties, in its 61 years of existence.

“The root cause of Israel’s institutional weakness,” says Gidi Grinstein, director of the Reut Institute, an Israeli policy center, “is an electoral system that generates unstable and fragmented governments.” It also creates incentives for acting and thinking in the short term, he says, when Israel needs a leadership that can think broadly and plan for the future. “It’s a potentially tragic mismatch.”

The newest government, led by Likud veteran Benjamin Netanyahu and his sprawling, mainly right-wing coalition, is as good an example as any. Twelve parties were elected to the Knesset—Likud, Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor, Shas, United Torah Judaism, United Arab List, National Union, Hadash, New Movement-Meretz, The Jewish Home and Balad. Six joined the ruling coalition, which boasts 30 ministers, making it the largest and messiest in Israeli history. “They used to talk about a kitchen cabinet,” says Harvard law professor and Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz. “This is a mega-mansion cabinet. It’s unwieldy and unworkable.”

The day after Netanyahu’s government was sworn in, the distinguished American scholar of the Middle East, 92-year-old Bernard Lewis, addressed the issue in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. “It is becoming increasingly clear,” he wrote, “that electoral reform of some kind is imperative if Israeli democracy is to survive.”

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