a blue box with dividers the separate stacks of white cards with one, two or three Hebrew characters on them
In Israeli elections, voters select a card representing their party of choice and drop it in the ballot box. (Photo/Wikimedia)

How to fix the fatal flaws in Israel’s political system

Many of the Jewish San Franciscans I have spoken to in recent months have voiced a series of concerns about the situation in Israel, including: Why doesn’t the government take more initiative toward peace? Why is there no egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall? How come the ultra-Orthodox don’t serve in the military? And why on earth did the prime minister recently strike a deal with a racist fringe party?

The answer, to paraphrase former President Bill Clinton, is as simple as it is unexpected: “It’s the system, stupid.”

The common denominator to all these issues is that they all stem from a structural flaw in our electoral system in Israel — one which allows vocal minorities to hold the national interest hostage to their concerns and interests. Therefore, for those yearning for a different Israel, the key to change lies in political reform.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy.

This means that to cobble together a ruling coalition of 61 members of Knesset, any prime minister must make extensive concessions to ensure a majority for his government. In reality, this means that smaller sectorial parties — like those representing the ultra-Orthodox and the National Religious — often serve as kingmakers in the Knesset. Today’s existing political system perpetuates this problem and we can expect to see it continue in the next Knesset that will take office after the April 9 elections.

The most vital reform needed is one that combats the constant splitting of political parties on the Israeli political scene. In the current elections, there are at least 16 parties running that have a reasonable chance of passing the 3.25 percent threshold needed to enter the Knesset. This situation is incentivized by the existing rules of the game.

Politicians prefer to head their own lists, knowing that if they succeed in passing the electoral threshold they will not have to answer to anyone but themselves. They also know that leading an independent faction increases their bargaining position in the inevitable coalition negotiations and ups the chance of acquiring a plum ministerial position. One only has to look at Avigdor Lieberman’s stint as defense minister (2016-18) as the head of a five-party faction in comparison to the more junior portfolios held by the ministers of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

To remedy this situation, the institute I head suggests that the next government create a series of incentives that have the potential of reinstituting two main blocs in the Knesset.

Under the current law, the president assigns a member of Knesset — one he deems has the “best chance” of forming a governing coalition — with the task of forming the next government. Then, if successful, the new prime minister presents his cabinet for an initial “vote of confidence” in the Knesset.

We propose amending the “Basic Law: The Government” so that it mandates that the head of the largest faction is automatically the prime minister’s role. The need for the initial vote of investiture is also removed under this reform.

These changes will hopefully encourage politicians to make their political deals before the election and, in turn, provide an incentive for Israelis to vote for a party whose leader has the potential to serve as prime minister. The goal is to eventually create two main blocs of parties that serve as “big tents” and are therefore able to include more diverse segments of society.

If the current system encourages sectarianism and even tribalism, this reform promotes efforts to find common ground and work together on major issues that a majority of Israelis agree on.

In 2012, when I was a member of Knesset, a rare opportunity existed (for a fleeting moment) when a broad unity government was formed dramatically in the middle of the night by Likud and my party, Kadima. That government was intended to tackle this very issue of electoral reform and finally settle the matter of ultra-Orthodox recruitment to the Israel Defense Forces.

Unfortunately, the latter issue tore the government apart and the Knesset adjourned to new elections before any progress could be made on meaningful reforms.

The good news is that this very same fragmentation of political parties created by the existing system may force whoever ends up forming the next government to convene a centrist coalition of larger parties that can work together to enact these important reforms.

A real opportunity for change will exist after the elections. The real-estate bubble may continue to inflate, and there is a good chance that the border with Gaza will remain unstable. Nevertheless, it is vital that whoever heads our government not only deal with these pressing daily matters but also invests the time and energy to seek to fix these fatal flaws of Israel’s political system.

We at the Israel Democracy Institute will continue pressing political leaders and government officials about the need for these reforms. Enacting them may not be politically expedient for the current campaigns of our prime minister candidates, but they will ensure that future governments can finally tackle the most burning issues that lie at the heart of Israeli society and preserve the gift of the Jewish state’s young and vibrant democracy.

Yohanan Plesner
Yohanan Plesner

Yohanan Plesner is the president of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem who served as a Knesset member from 2007 to 2013.