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 He was elected in the second of three contests under a short-term reform, repealed in 2001, by which the prime minister was elected through a separate ballot from that for the Knesset.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.