Israel’s Election System Is No Good

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Worth A Look

On Feb. 10, Israel elected a new Knesset (or parliament) — the 18th since the establishment of the state in May 1948. Like its predecessors, it consists of a hodgepodge of 12 different parties. The two largest parties, Kadima and Likud, won 23% and 21% of the vote, giving them 28 and 27 seats respectively — a long way short of a majority. For seven weeks, neither was able to create a viable coalition to take over the government of the country. At last, a coalition government led by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has emerged.

In a sense, the creation of any sort of working democracy in Israel is a remarkable achievement. Since its creation, the country has been engaged in a life-and-death struggle with relentless enemies. It exists in a region where democracy hasn’t flourished, and most of its citizens originate in countries with little or no experience of democratic government. Despite all of this, there has been no attempt at a military takeover or any kind of coup d’état — not even a constitutional crisis.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that electoral reform of some kind is imperative if Israeli democracy is to survive. The latest election reveals in an acute form the gaping inadequacies and, worse still, the looming dangers of the existing electoral process and the resulting political structure: indecisive, splintered and at times corrupt.

Electoral reform has been discussed before and was even attempted in 1992 when the Knesset introduced a new law providing for the direct election of the prime minister. I remarked at the time, in the course of a lecture in Jerusalem, that Israel already had the worst electoral system in the Free World and had succeeded, with true Jewish ingenuity, in doing something I wouldn’t have thought possible: finding a way to make it even worse. My audience reacted with thunderous applause. That pseudo-reform was abandoned in March 2001; the need to establish a workable electoral system able to function effectively remains.

The present system is usually described as “nationwide proportional representation.” That is to say, the whole country is a single constituency, in which parties — not individuals — compete. Each party has its own list of members, and each has its own way of assembling and arranging that list. The presidency, like the British monarchy on which it is apparently modeled, is primarily symbolic. The head of government is the prime minister; he and his cabinet are all members of the Knesset, where they must command a majority of votes in order to govern or even survive. The threshold for admission to the Knesset — which consists of 120 members — is just 2% of the total vote. The result is that parliamentary representation, and with it a measure of political influence, at times even of control, is given to various special interest groups, which in a normal constituency system would never succeed in electing a single member.

This system of voting by lists is the source of many of the difficulties which plague Israeli public life. In the English-speaking countries — the oldest and most stable democracies — voting is by constituencies. The founders of the state of Israel preferred the Weimar model — hardly an auspicious choice. Voting by lists of this kind has several harmful consequences. First, it gives undue power to relatively minor groups. They can play a crucial role in the formation and survival of coalitions. This is not a healthy way to form or end governments, or to formulate and conduct policies. It is surely significant that of all the parliaments elected since the establishment of the state, only one survived to the end of the four-year term provided by the law. All the others were broken up by internal disputes within the coalitions.

A significant disadvantage of the present system is that there is no direct relationship between the elected members and the electors. In the Anglo-American system, every member is directly answerable to the people of the place he represents. They watch their member’s actions, and vote accordingly in the next election.

In the Israeli system, the member is only responsible to the party leadership or, worse still, to the party bureaucracy. His success or failure in the election depends less on the will of the electorate than on the place assigned to him in the party list. This is not a healthy system, and it can only encourage the corruption about which so many Israelis complain today. The Knesset would improve dramatically in quality and experience if its members, including the members of the government, were obliged to fight and win their own election and re-election by the electorate.

Reforming this system would not be easy, and the small splinter parties which benefit from the existing system would resist any attempt to change it. But change is a shared interest of the major groups and of the nation. One can only hope that while they may disagree about everything else, they would agree on this.

Mr. Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton, is the author of “From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East” (Oxford University Press, 2004).