The problem with Israeli elections

The problem with Israeli elections

There’s a structural flaw in Israel’s electoral system: an extreme form of proportional representation. No ruling party has ever had an outright majority in the Knesset; this forces a reliance on small minority parties for a majority coalition. The situation has gotten worse in recent years, with a proliferation of small parties with narrow interests increasingly undercutting stated government policies.

MK’s are elected by votes for national party or electoral lists, not for individual candidates. The country is one undivided constituency district, with seats awarded in proportion to a list’s total of the votes cast, with adjustments for lists that fail to win the required threshold – not a fixed number, but a proportion sufficient to win two seats (somewhat in excess of two percent of all votes cast). The president then appoints the head of the list with the most MK’s elected to try to pull together a stable coalition, hopefully with majority support in the Knesset.

The Knesset’s current 120 members represent 12 competing electoral blocs, including even more distinct political parties, some of which share a common list. The ruling Kadima party has a historically weak representation of 29 members, currently allying with three others for its majority, including the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox “Shas” party that was blackmailing Olmert to expand housing in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The second largest party in the coalition and the Knesset is Labor, with a mere 19 seats. The opposition Likud commands 12 seats.

The most telling instance of how the electoral system undermined peace was in 1999-2000, during Ehud Barak’s year and a half at the head of a Labor-led coalition. Barak won 56 percent of the direct vote for prime minister in ’99 but was plagued by an unstable coalition with right-wing elements. He was elected in the second of three contests under a short-term reform, repealed in 2001, by which the prime minister was elected through a separate ballot from that for the Knesset. If Barak had broken with tradition and included in his government one or more of the three predominantly Arab parties, he need not have incorporated the pro-settler National Religious Party, which then worked to expand settler housing in the West Bank.

As I write this, the Kadima party is about to hold an all-important primary election to select its new leader. If it is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the odds are about 50-50 that she will become Israel’s second female prime minister and, with a lot of luck and pluck, an Israeli leader who makes significant strides toward peace. But a very wise observer of Israeli society, Bernard Avishai, believes that “the only leadership that can make a difference now is the one being elected in Washington.” I don’t know that I agree, but it’s possible that he’s correct.

By | 2008-09-17T05:09:00-04:00 September 17th, 2008|Blog|3 Comments


  1. Wayne Smith September 17, 2008 at 1:14 pm - Reply

    Israel’s problem is not its voting system.

    Israel has many serious and concrete problems, starting with the fact that it has been at war since it was created. It is surrounded by 100 million people who wish to push it into the sea. It has grown explosively in 60 years from a few hundred thousand people to seven million or more, taking in an incredibly diverse lot of people from all over the world, many of them from very troubled situations.

    Israel’s voting system, one of the most democratic in the world, has allowed all of these people to have a voice and a role in making Israel the only modern industrial democracy in the middle east. Excluding people from the discussion by moving to a less fair voting system will not improve the situation.

    The suggestion that Israel’s difficulties are created by its voting system trivializes the country’s real problems. It is both illogical and disrespectful.

  2. Ralph Seliger September 17, 2008 at 3:14 pm - Reply

    While Wayne Smith is correct in much of what he says here, he is unfair in characterizing my appeal to reform Israel’s extreme form of proportional representation to be “illogical and disrespectful.” While it is very democratic to give even small minority interests a voice, the problem is that the ultra-Orthodox and the pro-settler movement are two minorities that have, in effect, exercised a veto over the will of the majority. In other words, a measure meant to maximize democracy undermines democracy by frustrating the will of the majority (in this case regarding the curtailment of West Bank settlements and moving forward on negotiating a two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority).

  3. Anonymous September 17, 2008 at 3:57 pm - Reply

    You write: “the problem is that the ultra-Orthodox and the pro-settler movement are two minorities that have, in effect, exercised a veto over the will of the majority.” I think this is imprecise.

    The ultra-Orthodox traditionally had sway by exploiting the divisions between the Israeli Left and Right. I wouldn’t call this is a veto: If Labor and Likud both were willing to kowtow to the dictates of the rabbis, their voters should have punished them at the ballot booth (and had ample opportunity to do so if they really cared).

    So I wouldn’t call this a veto. And I don’t think that a different system would have markedly changed this picture.

    I think the much bigger problem with Israeli democracy is not the voting system, but the lack of willingness to defend the rule of law. If only the ultra-Orthodox and ideological settlers played by the rules, things would be manageable.

    The bigger problem is that the democratic rules have too often been utilized by these groups not as an end in themselves, but as a means to attain political goals. Therefore, when these means have not proved effective, there has not been much compunction about flouting the rules and resorting to violent protest (think Yamit in the early ’80s, Gaza in 2005, the Amona wildcat outpost in ’06, and the less-famous, but just as consistent, ultra-orthodox riots over a variety of issues, such as the violent struggle to close Bar-Ilan Road in Jerusalem).

    So it shouldn’t be all that surprising that mainstream Israeli pollsters traditionally ask settler participants in public opinion surveys whether they would take up arms against the Israeli government to oppose an Israeli withdrawal!

    Until Israel’s majority stands up to lawbreakers who aren’t Palestinian, I don’t think tinkering with the system will change much, if at all.

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