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It’s time to change Israel’s electoral system

Israelis are used to voting for a party that exactly fits their worldview, but the plurality of parties is the root of all evil.

A plenum session at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Feb. 28, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
A plenum session at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Feb. 28, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Nechama Duek. Source: Twitter.
Nechama Duek

The Knesset’s summer session opens today as a huge question mark hangs over the future of the current government.

The opposition will put forward a motion to disperse the Knesset, which—with the Ra’am Party still determined to boycott its coalition partners—is expected to pass its preliminary reading. Then again, the opposition has only 54 Knesset seats, far short of the 61 votes necessary to take the law through further readings or replace the government.

There is no governmental stability in Israel. We have just been through four rounds of elections in three years and a fifth already looms on the horizon—this before the government has even completed its first year in power.

A government of change? Give me a break. This is the appropriate point in time to once again raise the need to make changes to our electoral system. Almost no government in Israel has managed to serve out its full term, which points to a need for change. We need a system that is suitable for Israel and all its tribes. A system that on the one hand will guarantee stability and on the other will provide appropriate representation for all sectors of society.

The plurality of parties in Israel is the root of all evil. The inflection point was in 1992 when direct prime ministerial elections were instituted. This enabled Israeli citizens to cast one ballot for prime minister and another for a party. The law was supposed to be the first stage in an overall reform of the system of government.

Three prime ministers were elected directly—Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon—but the reform was condemned to failure because no changes were made to how Knesset members are elected. In 2003, while Ariel Sharon was prime minister, with the agreement of the opposition, the direct ballot for prime minister was annulled, and we returned to the previous system.

Israel’s citizens have become used to voting for a party that is an exact fit for their worldview. This has led to the fragmentation of the political system with shards of parties on both the left and the right. In the United States, there are only two major parties; in the United Kingdom, only three; and only four parties competed in the recent French presidential elections. That’s the way it works in most of the democratic world: Citizens choose between two or three parties. In Israel, on the other hand, there are at least 10 Knesset parties and dozens of outside parties that run in every election.

The decision to raise the electoral threshold to 3.25% of the vote wasn’t enough. With a wide dispersion of votes, the ability to put together a coalition shrinks. To raise the threshold by another percentage point, however, may lead more parties to unite. Israel should not have more than four parties: center-right, center-left, ultra-Orthodox and Arab.

There is no real answer to the question of why Labor, Meretz, Blue and White and Yesh Atid don’t run on one center-left ticket like the Democratic Party in the United States.

There is no real reason why Likud, Yamina, New Hope, Israel Beiteinu and some of the Religious Zionists can’t run under a center-right flag like the Republicans in the United States. Even with a magnifying glass, one can’t find significant differences between New Hope, Likud and Yamina. The only thing that prevents unity is that party leaders Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett do not want to work with Benjamin Netanyahu.

United Torah Judaism and Shas in its current ultra-Orthodox format can run together and realize their full potential. In the Arab sector as well, a common denominator can be found between Ra’am and the Joint Arab List to bring them together to work for the benefit of their voters. After all, Ra’am MK Mansour Abbas has proved that if there’s a will, there’s a way.

A return to direct prime ministerial elections would not be a bad thing. It would allow the electorate to vote for who they want as prime minister in a similar fashion to local authority elections. But we must reform the way MKs are elected and integrate national and regional elections, something that will serve the need for appropriate representation for all parts of Israeli society. If this does not happen, the mandate to form a government will be tasked to the leader of one of the two biggest parties. That alone would lead the parties to unite.

What is required is courage from political leaders on both sides to agree to change reality and not just their political situation.

Nechama Duek is a journalist and political commentator.

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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