Will Israel Dismantle Its Election System?
by Gad Nahshon
Israelis will soon go to the voting booth. Fifth years after its birth, the state of Israel finds itself on the verge of political turmoil. Furthermore, judging its political reality and its new basic law of direct-election of the Prime Minister, one may doubt Israel's ability to establish a strong, functioning, executive branch in the near future.
In November, 1948, David Ben Gurion, Israel's legendary 'founding father,' appointed a special committee in order to identify the best election system for the new democracy in the Middle East. Ben-Gurion believed in the British parliamentary system. He believed that Israel needed a strong executive branch. But he failed in his quest. The majority of Ben Gurion's committee members supported the proportional system in which Israel is only one region (district). Ben Gurion left a sort of safety valve: a simple majority of the Knesset's members would be required to change this system of election or: 61 MK5.
Historically, this system has pushed Israel to the verge of political anarchy. It was to become detrimental to the security and survival issues in the Middle East in the next century. Too much national energies and resources have been lost as a result of the instability of the Israeli cabinets. As a result, political blackmailing and shameful disintegration of the various party coalitions have become the Israeli norm. The non-stop crises and confrontations spawned a continuing eroding process of governmental effectiveness. The prestige of the Knesset, Israel's legislative branch has been eroded in the last decade for the same reasons. It should be noted that the election system is rooted in Israel's political culture which was imported from East Europe.
Indeed: in the world Zionist congresses, each party, faction or splinter, had representation. The idea behind that factionalism was the promotion of democracy, and pluralism. The Palestinian Jews also adopted this conviction but in Israel, a free state since May 14, 1948, the story has been different. Indeed, Ben-Gurion's later disciples tried to change or reform the proportional system since 1949, the first year of Israel's national general and secret election. Often, the Knesset was willing to change or dismantle gaps or loopholes. Often, it merely discussed the proposals for change.
For example, the Knesset considered a bill to divide Israel into 60 regions (districts). That idea was to mix the two systems. It involved a provision that half the seats would be decided by a proportional system and the other half by regional or direct election. There have been many ideas for change over the years. The bottom line after fifty years is: The various proposals could not achieve even a simple majority! Furthermore, instead of a change, the system has promoted more parties and splinter groups resulting in fragmentation of Israel's political life.
The resulting outcome reflects the instability of the Israeli governments and uncertainty in the survival of fragile coalitions. The Knesset history has been peppered by fighting, disintegration of various parties and many individual defections.
Further, the political party's loyalties have also been eroded in the past twenty years. Any member of the Knesset can defect from his party. This situation in Israel's coalition government can result of the collapse of the cabinet. This defector does not have to give back his mandate to the party which selected him to be in its list of candidates. This format encourages political blackmailing which has affected the vitality of the coalition governments.
Israelis saw "a light in the tunnel" in 1984 when a group of scholars from Tel Aviv University, among them Dr. Daniel Friedman and Dr. Uriel Richman, established the first massive Israeli movement for reform entitled: "Constitution For Israel." The movement advocated many changes in Israel's political life. It's crusade was a great educational campaign. It was also an epitome of Israel's accelerating process of Americanization. The movement promoted the idea of "primaries" inside the multi-party system replacing the old "boss" system.
The rise of public relation agencies which are serving the politicians was another phenomenon of this process. Also, like in America, each politician in Israel running for election to the Knesset must first of all organize a financial backing. In 1984, the reformers whose leader was Prof. Uriel Richman, managed to influence the Knesset with its idea of the direct election of the Prime Minister. In 1988, the Knesset decided to discuss the reform bill. And in 1992, the Knesset enacted a new "Basic Law: The Government" (Basic Law means a chapter in Israel's future written constitution).
The new law based on the idea of direct election of the Prime Minister. On the surface it looked as if the reformers won a great constitutional victory. But reality was different. Israelis came to feel a frustrated disappointment. Bibi Netanyahu was the first Prime Minister to be elected according to this new law. Today, even the zealous advocates of this basic law have confessed that they were wrong. This basic law has increased the political bickering. The voters can vote twice: once for their own "clannish" party, and then for a Prime Minister who may represent another party. The coalition government then becomes even more fragile. It may be subject to behind the scenes blackmail. It has also resulted in shrinking of Israel's two major parties in favor of more small parties. It may be argued that the new basic law in today's Israel can only reinforce the negative aspects of the election system. The advocates of this new constitutional idea had to link the change to a change in the election system. One can not reform the executive branch in Israel ignoring the urgent need to reform the legislative branch, as well.
We need, by "trial and error," to find an election system which can give birth to a stable, effective government.
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