The severe crisis of political instability Israel has experienced since 2019 can be encapsulated in one Talmudic-style phrase: Israeli politics is inherently and fundamentally incapable of saving itself from Israeli politics.
Our public officials are imprisoned by the electoral system that elected them. They cannot extricate themselves—and us with them—from the prison, or perhaps more precisely, the madhouse created by this system. It is the structural source of the current political crisis, contrary to the incidental reasons currently exacerbating it.
The incidental reasons are well known, and they are unfortunately the ones that attract the full attention of the public and politicians alike, rather than the deeper structural problems at work.
For example, a considerable portion of the Israeli public lacks faith in the State Attorney’s Office and its indictment against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They have continued to support Netanyahu throughout three election campaigns even after he was charged. Hence, although his indictment isolated him and the Likud party in the political arena and brought his political rivals together, the broad lack of trust in the state prosecutor has prevented his successors from forming a stable government—forcing them instead into a coalition predicated on an exceedingly narrow and fragile common denominator.
The syndrome of “anyone but Netanyahu or only Netanyahu,” however, is only making the crisis worse—it isn’t the cause of the instability itself. The cause is Israel’s proportional representation system. This system is a rarity in the rest of the world because it is condemned to form fragile governments. By and large, other democratic countries eschew it, with good reason. It is dependent on the existence of large parties to form coalitions, but even when such parties do exist, the government still tends to fail to complete its four-year term. In Israel, only one party, Likud, can be considered a large party, and it is still just a medium-size party—similar in size to Labor on the eve of its 1977 election loss. The criminal charges brought against Netanyahu effectively prohibited Likud from forming a government, thus the severe crisis in which we find ourselves today, which will only intensify over time. Even prior to that, however, almost every Netanyahu government and its predecessors were unstable and lacked cohesion.
The writing has been on the wall for a long time: we need to change our national electoral system. We mustn’t raise the electoral threshold or make laws to limit the discretion of public officials, because we’ve seen the results: the evisceration of the independence of Knesset members such as Amichai Chikli or Eli Evidar, turning them into clerks and hostages of politicians leading non-parties that are essentially electoral businesses owned by those politicians.
And we mustn’t return to the system of direct elections, that same silly amalgamation of a presidential regime and parliamentary regime that destroyed our party system and greatly added to its instability.
Both systems are simply different ways adopted by the members of the various Knessets since the 1990s to avoid doing what they should have: fundamentally change the failed electoral system by which they were elected and introduce regional votes based on the majoritarian (or relative majority) system, whereby the person who receives the most votes in a certain area “wins it all.” The optimum system would hope to replicate the regional-majoritarian (or “first-past-the-post”) system used, for example, in Great Britain, which creates two natural ruling parties and stable, cohesive governments.
The root of the difficulty in implementing this necessary reform is obvious: Knesset members have good reason to assume that if a fundamentally different electoral system is introduced, they won’t be elected. An electoral system that requires them to be personally elected in a certain district won’t allow them to hide behind a well-known leader, for example. The leverage for changing the system is the ongoing, undeniable failure of the current one. To extricate ourselves from this trap, the public must apply extra-parliamentary pressure and demand fundamental change.
Professor Avi Bareli is a historian and researcher at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.