Israel's Election System a Disaster
by Gad Nahshon
In November 1948, David Ben-Gurion, then the Prime Minister of the provisional government, established a special 'think-tank' whose task was to find out the best election system for the new state. Ben-Gurion wanted to copy the British regional (District) system believing it to guarantee an effective stable executive branch who could build the needed socio-economic infrastructure of the young state. His goal was to maximize Israel's limited resources and energies. He also had to absorb the massive waves of aliyah which poured to Israel since 1949. But the majority of the 'founding fathers' decided to espouse the national proportional system in which the entire country is only one region. This system was originated in the World Zionist Congress and by the Jews who live in Palestine (The Yishuv) for election of their national assembly (under the British Mandate). The early Zionist believed that each party block or faction should have representation. It was a great democratic idea.
But one who reviews the political history of Israel from 1949 to 2000 can easily conclude that this proportional system has been detrimental to the well-being of the country and the Israeli society as well. This system pushed Israel to the verge of political anarchy distorting the Israeli political life.
First let me outline some of the negative aspects of this terrible system:
- permanent erosion of the power of the executive branch
- permanent erosion of the power of the major parties
- creation of a political jungle of a multi-party system which stimulated the mushrooming of small parties or factions. It should be noted that any elected member of the Knesset can easily betray his party and his voters by establishing a one man party. He does not have to resign if he leaves his own party. Of course he can join another party in the Knesset. The parties are a very fragile entity
- the system of election gave birth to the idea of coalition governments. These multi-party cabinets produced fragile regimes. The infrastructure of the Israeli politics therefore is detrimental to the building of a strong coalition cabinet. Parties can easily disintegrate. The party loyalty is shrinking. This reality produced a system of non-stop ever-growing blackmailing and shameless political extortions. Indeed, the prestige of the Knesset is very low. There is a credibility gap between the masses and the Israeli political establishment.
After almost 52 years, Israel finds itself on the verge of political turmoil. Israel cannot establish a strong, effective and functioning executive branch. There is too much tension in the air. Too much confrontations in political civil wars, a high degree of disintegration of norms and standards inside the society, the public administration, and of course, in the Knesset: hyper-democratic environment can give birth to mobocracy and anarchy as well. It is hard to find a national consensus even on security-defense issues. One can figure out for himself that the government which is always based its life on a coalition is wasting too much national energies and interests. 'Coalition' means a government which is doomed to live with a culture of intimidation and blackmail. This situation and reality means shadowing the national process of decision making. Israeli Prime Ministers had to be some kind of magician. And only future scholars will be able to assess the national terrible price of maintaining a coalition government in Israel.
For so many years, Israel's term coalition has been synonymous with the term fragile. And fragile means crisis, non-confident votes, and new election. Ben-Gurion's many disciples have tried to challenge this dangerous reality. The reader must keep in mind that Israel is not a country like Belgium, for example. It is still a country in a stage of siege. Its future survival is the national priority in its agenda. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 demonstrated the fact that its margin is very narrow. Therefore Israel must not waste its resources and energies on domestic problems. It must find a better formula for national unity. So many politicians such as Gad Jacobi tried to find a solution to the problem by reforming the election system. According to the law all you need in order to change the system of election is a simple majority in the Knesset: 61 supporters. But the reformers could not mobilize this majority. The ideas of these reformers were as the lesser evil to combine the proportional system with a regional system (Districts), or 60 members of the Knesset will be elected by proportion of the total national voting and the other 60 by 60 distracts. This proposal almost was a winner in the Knesset in 1984.
The idea of reform received a new momentum in 1987 when four Tel Aviv university professors published a document called: "Constitution for Israel." These reformers whose head was Prof. Uriel Riechman launched a massive national movement and campaign for reform. Their focus was on the executive branch and on civil rights. The reformers had great support among the members of the Knesset. And in 1990 a new basic law was born: Direct Election of the Prime Minister. Bibi Netanyahu was the first Prime Minister who was elected according to this basic law in 1992. And Ehud Barak was the second one. The reformers believed that they won a great constitutional victory but the reality and the outcomes have been a frustrated disappointment for them. Today, even the zealous advocate of this basic law confess to their myopic vision.
This law only has reinforced the historical negative aspects of the Israeli politics and the flaws of its proportional election system. And Prime Minister Barak has been a victim of harassment and intimidation by his coalition partners the same way that Netanyahu was. He can run away but he cannot hide. And many experts believe that his coalition will collapse. The big mistake of the reformers was the belief that one can reform the executive branch without a similar reform of the legislative branch. In reality, the Prime Minister has the same power that he had before the enacting of the new Basic Law of Direct Election of Prime Minister.
The only solution is to reform the election system. By using 'trial and error' Israel must find the system which can produce a stable, effective government.
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