Electoral Reform: Hope for Tomorrow

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The good news is that according to surveys that we published at the Israel Democracy Institute, there is widespread consensus among Israelis on many of the most significant issues our country faces

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Whoever wins this election is over, we can all agree that, there is one obvious loser in this campaign—the quality of our civil discourse. Social solidarity, placing country above party and ideology, tolerance—all of these —have been dealt severe blows in the course of campaign that undermined many of our shared values.

The good news is that according to surveys that we published at the Israel Democracy Institute, there is widespread consensus amongst Israelis on many of the most significant issues our country faces. Most of us believe that the State’s Jewish and democratic attributes are of equal importance. Most of us think that the principle of equality should be enshrined in the Nation-State Law; a majority opposes stripping the Supreme Court of the power to strike down Knesset legislation deemed unconstitutional.  These are just two examples of areas where Israelis agree on the most significant issues that define our country.

There have been tempestuous election campaigns in the past, of course. I personally have especially vivid memories of 1981, when, as a boy, I attended a rally in Sacher Park in Jerusalem. I can still hear the harsh language employed by the speakers, notably Menachem Begin as he challenged his opponent's with ideological arguments. The difference is that back then, no one challenged the system, our shared values, and the rules of the game in a democratic system.

This is exactly what was exposed as so lacking in this election.  These basic rules of the game and the boundaries within which public debate should be confined are clearly missing.  We seem to be lacking what was once obvious to all - an overall framework that defined our country as a Jewish and democratic state, in which all, with no exceptions, are citizens with equal rights, subject to the same laws and complying with the same norms.  These uniquely Israeli rules of  the game are enshrined in our Basic Laws. But a country that amends these fundamental texts fourteen times within a single Knesset term—as was the case in the past four years—is a country that is making up the rules as it goes along.  To put our predicament into proportion, the Constitution of the United States, by contrast, has been amended only seventeen times since 1791.

The crucial step we must now take is to enact serious electoral reform that will change the way Israeli governments are formed.  The goal is to contribute to the emergence of two large political blocs and prevent extortion by small factions. Alas, the need for this reform will likely be apparent in the makeup of next government that will be decided by the smallest, and most extreme, of the Knesset factions. The truly bad news is that if this collation will not be based firstly on the two largest parties, each of the small parties will have with the power to bring down the Government, when and if it chooses.

In such a situation, the power of the small parties will greatly exceed their public support. A mere four or five percent of the voters, who cast their ballots for a list they could not even be sure would pass the threshold, could now define the policies of the new coalition for the other 95% of the population.  This includes the most fundamental issues that go to the very heart of the nature of the state.  Our political history teaches us that when small pressure groups have disproportionate influence, the outcome can be extremely problematic.

We could change this situation by enacting reforms that would automatically task the head of the largest faction with forming the government.  The knowledge that the leader of the largest party in the Knesset will automatically become prime minister could motivate voters to choose one of the large parties and encourage the smaller ones to merge before the elections.  Such a change would weaken the bargaining power of the small parties and of individual politicians.

These reforms would significantly contribute to making government more efficient, to advancing economic and structural reforms with a long-term perspective in mind, and to restoring stability to our divided and incessantly bickering political system, by giving it two firm legs to stand on.

It is not an exaggeration to say that electoral reform is the essential first step towards healing Israeli democracy. Despite all the mudslinging, polarization, and incitement, Israelis still believe in democracy and its principles. We are proud of our country and we still want to live here. Whichever candidate is elected will enjoy public support if they promote substantive democracy, which includes— liberty, equality, respect for human dignity, checks and balances between the branches of government, and preservation of the rule of law and Israel’s rich and diverse social fabric.

This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post.