Israel needs a national referendum on election reform

A two-round system adopted by referendum could end the absurd political farce in which we now find ourselves.

Ballots at a polling station in Jerusalem, March 23, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Ballots at a polling station in Jerusalem, March 23, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

That the Israeli political system is dysfunctional has long been obvious, but this dysfunction now appears to have reached a point of critical mass. Israel is currently led by a prime minister whose party has a total of seven Knesset seats. The governing coalition is composed of ideological rivals brought together by the desire to keep one man out of office, which may be a defensible goal, but not very workable. Coalition Knesset members are leaving left and right, along with long-standing staff and advisers. Ministers are sniping at each other in both public and private. And the government must now be regularly propped up by a party composed of communists and Palestinian nationalists.

All of these absurdities, however, are mere symptoms of a much larger and more serious disease, which is Israeli politics itself—specifically, its electoral system.

Israel’s electoral system is byzantine enough to preclude any detailed discussion of it here. Suffice it to say that it is a radical form of proportional representation, in which any party that receives a meager 3.25% of the vote can enter the Knesset and, for the most part, cause general bloody mayhem. In Israel, the expression “every bastard a king” has become “every bastard an MK.” No single party can gain anything like a majority, and thus the larger parties are dependent on all manner of satellite and sectarian parties. As a result, these small parties wield power and influence wildly out of proportion to their numbers.

The consequences of this are such things as enormous subsidies for thousands of the willfully unemployed; various self-aggrandizing lobbies of considerable power; nationalist parties that torpedo nationalist governments; center-left parties built out of nothing but the appeal of a single charismatic figure; the aforementioned influence of a communist/Palestinian nationalist party over a Zionist majority; an Islamist party that can extract huge concessions from a right-wing prime minister; and now, a government that can barely function.

This can all be seen as good or bad, depending on one’s ideology or sectarian interests, but that it foments a politics of perpetual chaos and privileges minority interests over majority consensus cannot be denied. Even those who benefit from it would likely admit as much if caught in an honest moment.

There have been halting attempts to change this dysfunctional system, but the problem has remained persistent, for obvious reasons: Specific groups benefit from the disproportionate power it grants them, and they use that power in order to prevent any radical overhaul. This is their right, of course, and in some cases understandable, but it doesn’t change the fact that the system they preserve and perpetuate has become unworkable.

If there is to be a change, it will have to come from below. The Israeli political establishment is simply incapable of addressing the problem, and the party system will have to be bypassed. The best option for reform would seem to be a campaign to hold a national referendum on replacing the current electoral system. This campaign would have to start from the grassroots, with activists collecting signatures, holding rallies, promoting the cause on social media and so on. If such a campaign builds enough momentum, the political establishment—no doubt against its will—would be forced to hold the referendum, and if the alternative presented is appealing enough, it would likely receive majority support from a fed-up electorate.

What replacement might this referendum propose? I can only make my own modest recommendation. There are two major considerations: First, any new electoral system would have to take into account the diversity of Israel’s various communities and ideological camps, which makes a “first past the post” system less desirable than in more homogeneous countries. At the same time, however, Israel’s plethora of parties must be limited in some fashion, and the system weighted towards consensus rather than division.

The best model, then, would probably be the “run-off” or “two-round” system found in countries such as France and several American states. Under this system, Israel’s entire mad collage of parties would run in the first round. If no party gains an outright majority—and in Israel, this is a foregone conclusion—the two parties with the largest percentage of the vote will face off in the second round. Knesset seats will then be apportioned according to the percentage each party receives, guaranteeing a coherent government and opposition.

Besides the obvious salutary effect of installing something like a consensus government, such a system would also push the entire political system in a more functional direction. The smaller parties, for example, would almost certainly begin to consolidate with the larger ones, meaning they would be forced to moderate or face oblivion. The haredi and national religious parties, along with secular right-wing parties, would likely join with Likud into a broad center-right list. On the other side, parties like Yesh Atid and Blue and White would be joined by leftist and Arab parties in a center-left bloc of comparable size. A third or fourth party, composed of the disaffected, the inordinately ambitious and other misfits, could well emerge, but they would be incapable of wielding anything like the power Israel’s smaller parties do today.

Charles de Gaulle, France’s most storied and influential president, once asked: “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” The question could just as easily be asked about a country with more than 30 political parties. Israel would, unquestionably, remain a fractious and disputatious society under any system. It will always be a difficult country to run. But electoral reform by national referendum and the adoption of a two-round system could make Israel at least vaguely governable, lessen sectarian and ideological division, tamp down extremism, enable much-needed reform in other areas of society and bring the absurd political farce in which we now find ourselves to an end.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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