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Op-Ed: Governance and Accountability

The ills of Israel's electoral system and the maladies of its government. Timely, as negotiations begin, and timely because of the contrast with this week's Torah reading, Shoftim.
Published: Thursday, August 08, 2013 10:04 PM


Eighteen years ago, the present author presented a paper at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington, D.C. Many people at the conference were amazed to learn that Israel did not have a written constitution.

They were no less disconcerted by the fact that despite Israel’s reputation as a democacy, members of its Knesset were not individually elected by and accountable to the voters in multi-district or constituency elections.

This absence of accountability is the consequence of Israel’s system of Proportional Representation whereby citizens are compelled to vote not for an individual candidate representing a particular district in which voter resides, but for a party’s national list, most of whose names are inevitably unknown to the voter! That conference in Washington, D.C. prompted me to undertake a comprehensive study of the world’s reputed democracies. The following abbreviates that study.

Many citizens of Israelis, including academics, believe that such is the smallness of this country, both in population and area, that multi-district or constituency elections is inappropriate. They are wedded to the existing parliamentary system whereby the entire country constitutes a single electoral district in which parties compete and win Knesset seats on the basis of Proportional Representation (PR).

This, the ordinary citizen believes, enables distinct groups—ideological, ethnic, religious, or otherwise—to be represented by distinct parties in the Knesset regardless of whether the individuals composing these groups are dispersed throughout the country. The advocates of PR also contend that representation of geographical districts or regional elections leads to disproportionate representation of diverse groups as well as gerrymandering.  Let us distinguish facts from fictions.

Of the 88 states classified by Freedom House as democracies, only Israel, Slovakia, Latvia, and Uruguay make the entire country a single electoral district in which parties compete for parliamentary seats by means of Proportional Representation (PR).[1] But telling Israelis that their charming democracy was virtually the only one that compelled citizens to vote for fixed party slates was not going to endear me to the Establishment. No one was going to win the Israel Prize by publishing articles, books, and policy papers informing the people that Israel is almost the only reputed democracy where legislators are not individually accountable to the voters in regional or constituency elections, hence, that they have been effectively disenfranchised. And to forestall any rejoinder, I had to add that this undemocratic system—this lack of constituency elections—is not the result of Israel’s minute size, since 48 democracies are smaller in population than Israel, while 26 are smaller in size!

I have never ceased to be disturbed by the fact that in Israel an incumbent Knesset member does not have to defend his voting record against a rival candidate in a local election. If an incumbent MK had violated his campaign pledges, or was responsible for a failed policy or even a national debacle, he would not need to worry about being exposed by a rival for his office. The institution of voting for party slates enables those who become members of the Knesset—especially those who become cabinet ministers—to ignore public opinion with impunity. Thus, despite his authorship of the disastrous Oslo Agreement in 1993, Mr. Shimon Peres never lost his seat in the Knesset until July 2007, and then only because the Knesset elected him President of the State of Israel!

Also appalling is the multiplicity of parties resulting from Proportional Representation with a low electoral threshold (now 2%). Recall the absurdity of the 2013 election and its 33—no,  34—competing parties. Is it any wonder that that no party has ever come close to winning a majority of the seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset? Israel has never had a majority party at the head of its government.

A coalition of rival parties is thus required to form a Govern­ment. The leaders of these parties become cabinet ministers. After consulting with the various party leaders, Israel’s President names the party leader who he thinks can form a Cabinet representing a majority of the Knesset’s membership. An Israeli cabinet consists of 25 to 30 ministers, a plurality of which is appointed by the Prime Minister. Since the ministers are party leaders, they occupy safe places at the top of their party’s electoral list, which makes them impervious to public opinion.

It should be stressed that an MK’s overriding ambition is to become a cabinet minister—the road to power and political longevity. (This is why Knesset members typically oppose constituency elections.) Even more significant, since the Cabinet consists of party leaders, no Labor- or Likud-led or Kadima-led government has ever been toppled by a Knesset vote of no confidence! To fully understand this extraordinary situation, some repetition of previous remarks is necessary.

In Israel, as in all parliamentary systems, the prime minister’s cabinet typically consists of members of the legislature (parliament). However, unlike other parliamentary regimes, where members of the legislature are individually elected by the voters in regional elections, in Israel MKs owe their position and perks to their party leaders and machinery. Since the ministers of the Cabinet are the leaders of the parties comprising the ruling majority coalition in the Knesset, the Cabinet can readily prevent the Knesset from toppling the government. Israel’s ostensibly democratic system can therefore thwart the will of the people even on issues affecting the territorial integrity or borders of the state!

Returning to the system of Proportional Representation which has enthalled Israel since 1948, it’s very much a fraud. Contrary to its idolaters, proportional representation of distinct groups in a single nationwide district election does not ensure a party’s fidelity to its campaign pledges. In Istrael’s 1992 election campaign, the Labor Party’s platform rejected recognition of, or negotiation with, the PLO, as well as withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Once ensconced in office, however, Labor betrayed the voters. So did the ultra-religious Shas Party, which declared, in that 1992 campaign, that it would not join a Labor-Meretz coalition.

Much the same may be said of the Likud in 1996 (the first national election of a prime minister). When Prime Minister Netanyahu declared on CNN that no one ever expected him to accept the Oslo Accords as a basis for the “peace process,” or meet with Yasir Arafat, or withdraw from Hebron, he unwittingly admitted that he had betrayed the expectations of those who voted both for him and his Likud Party.

Morover, despite the fact that the Likud Party won more than 70 percent of the votes in  February 2003, when it campaigned against the Labor Party’s policy of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Likud Prime Minisiter Ariel Sharon adopted Labor’s policy and thus effectively nullified  that 2003 election! In fact, in October of the following year, the Knesset “legitimated” Sharon’s coup by enacting the Gaza evacuation law, thanks to the votes of 23 Likud MKs who thereby betrayed their February 2003 election pledges. The 8,000 Jews expelled from Gaza may have wondered about Israel’s reputation as a democracy.  Nor is this all.

 If Sharon’s nullificaton of that 2003 election was not a political coup d’etat, consider the spiritual coup that Prime Minister Netanyuahu pulled four months after the March 2009 election. Thus, in June of that year, Mr. Netanyahu, without Knesset or public debate (and contrary to his own Likud Party’s constitution), endorsed the creation of an Arab Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria, the heartland of the Jewish people, indeed, in the cradle of Jewish civilization! So  much for Proportional Representation, exalted as one of the blessings of Israeli democraqcy.

The fact that almost every democracy on the planet manages to conduct public business by means of multi-district elections should dispel the fiction that Israel cannot function well or justly without its existing parliamentary electoral system. The truth is that 65 years of this “system” has engendered the shoddiest politics. Recall the 1999 elections when 29 Knesset Members hopped over to rival parties in order to obtain safe seats. Israel’s political “system” is a disgrace as well as a disaster, and only the ignorant along with self-serving politicians want to preserve it!

Israeli politicians are often faulted for their lack of national vision. Hardly anyone sees the connection between this parochialism and Israel’s faction-ridden system of Proportional Representaion—and this, quite apart from the plethora of parties produced by Israel’s 2% electoral threshold. That almost all of the world’s democracies shun this anarchic electoral system, in which no party has ever come close to winning an electoral majority, is no accident. In this case, Israel would do well to imitate the “gentiles”!

If it be said that regional elections will transform politicians into agents for local interests, this is only partly true, and its partial truth should be welcomed, for the concerns of small communities in Israel receive little attention by the government. Israel needs to explore alternatives to PR.

A profusion of electoral systems exist. The simplest is the single-member district with plurality rule (SMDP). The candidate receiving the most votes in the district wins. Opponents say SMDP disenfranchises minorities. This is rhetoric. First of all, the individuals composing “minorities” not only vote, but they also have the opportunity to lobby their district’s representative. Second, experience in the US indicates that minorities are not ignored by congressmen, especially in closely contested districts.

It can also be argued (as previously suggested) that SMDP requires elected officials to represent diverse opinions and interests, which can enlarge their intellectual horizons.  Even if it is true that SMDP disproportionately represents diverse groups, it is also true that PR with a low electoral threshold multiplies small parties, paralyzes governments, such that minorities themselves suffer as a consequence.  And it should be reiterated that Israel’s system of fixed party lists enables parties to ignore their voters with impunity. Here is what I discovered in my study of more than 80 electral systems.

SMDP is [or was] employed in no less than 22 countries, including Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. Of these 22 countries, 16 have smaller populations than Israel:  Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Dominica, Gambia, Grenada, Jamaica, Mocronesia, New Zealand, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Samoa, Trinidad & Tobago, and Zambia.  I have capitalized those countries whose geographical area is smaller than Israel. Incidentally, the 50 American states employ SMDP, and their populations range from 490,907 (Wyoming) to 33,666,550 (California).

Of course, single-member districts with plurality rule is not the last word. Some 54 countries employ other methods of representing constituents. Districts may have more than one representative, as in Australia; they may have run-off elections to obtain a majority candidate, as in France; and they may combine SMDP for part of the legislature and PR for the remainder, as in Germany.

Of the 54 countries just alluded to, 12 have smaller populations than Israel: CAPE VERDI, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, Honduras, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, and Uruguay. Again, the geographical area of the countries here capitalized is smaller than Israel.

We see, therefore, that 28 countries have smaller populations than Israel, and of these, 18 are smaller in area. This should dispose of objections to multi-district elections on the basis of a country’s population or size. I might also add that many countries are as heterogeneous as Israel.

Of the many regional electoral systems which Israel might adopt for its betterment, two may be mentioned here: the Preferential Vote system used in Australia and Ireland, and Personalized PR used in Germany and Denmark (which systems avoid gerrymandering).  For further details, see my book Jewish Statesmanship: Lest Israel Falls.[2]

For a comparison with Torah government, click here.

Notes:

[1] See Aili Piano and Arch Puddington, eds., Freedom in the World 2005 (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).

[2]University Press of America (New York: 2002). See also Paul Eidelberg, An American Political Scientist in Israel (New York: Lexington Books, 2010), Ch. 10.