23 Knesset Seats is Not a Victory

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IDI Director of International Communications Yehoshua Oz argues that pundits eager to crown a victor in the 2015 elections have lost sight of the fact that winning one-fifth of the Knesset seats is no victory.

Published in: The Jerusalem Post

Shortly after the first signs of new elections, the initial polls showed the ruling Likud party returning with a larger mandate, moving from its current 18 to between 21 and 30 seats. While this puts the faction in the lead, even the optimistic forecast would necessitate cobbling together a partnership with parties holding between them more seats than Likud to reach the necessary 61 minimum for a coalition.

With MK Tzipi Livni’s move from running strictly with the party she founded, Hatnua, to a union with Labor, the chattering class has been thrown into a frenzy predicting the impending end of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reign. Scenario polls show that the theoretical list could command 22 or 23 seats, edging out Likud which in those same polls garnered only 20 or 21 seats. Though analysts and commentators are waxing poetic on the possible “victory” of a Labor party under Isaac Herzog and Livni, securing 23 seats is in no way a victory.

Such a narrow advantage over the rival Likud could hardly be called a triumph. Moreover, the political map overall remains more favorable to the right, with more predicted seats between right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties than left-wing and Arab Israeli parties.

Much can happen in the three months between now and Election Day, and it is impossible to know what will be on voters’ minds or what domestic and international events may have intervened to change the agenda and discourse. Polls today may bear little relation to the final outcome on March 17th.

What is certainly clear is that if the total seats per party remain in the same realm as they are today (regardless of which party is in the lead), the largest party will hold a quarter or less of our parliament’s seats. The outgoing coalition totaled 68 MKs, spread over 5 parties, and with no party holding even one-sixth of the Knesset. (Likud Beytenu was a joint list for elections, but the parties never formally merged; they have since split completely.) Such a fractured coalition, patched together between parties with varying ideologies and even more personalities, was a recipe for dysfunction, resulting in the government falling apart less than two years after its auspicious start.

Israel’s electoral system is broken. From the time the decision to elect the prime minister directly came into effect in 1996 (later repealed in time for the 2003 election), large parties suffered at the expense of smaller, niche parties. From 1949 to 1992, the largest list held on average 45 seats. From 1996 to 2013, the largest list held on average just 31 seats. This leaves today’s chairman of the largest party needing to acquire more partners, finding himself in a coalition government where his party controls less than half of the votes even within the coalition. This is not a formula for stability.

With the Knesset’s passage earlier this year of the Governance Law, much of which was supported by IDI research, important first steps were taken to bring more stability to the Israeli system. “No confidence motions” must be constructive, meaning that the current government cannot be toppled without an alternative government being offered. The number of ministers has been limited to 19, deputy ministers limited to four, and the position of minister without portfolio has been eliminated. Perhaps most significantly, the electoral threshold has been raised from 2% of the total votes cast to 3.25%. Two-person and three-person parties will no longer make it into the Knesset; only those with enough votes for four or more seats will serve in our parliament.

While all of these pragmatic steps will further the goal of improving the ability of the prime minister to manage his coalition and to eliminate fringe parties, polling indicates that the Knesset could still lack any large parties and instead hold only a number of medium and small factions. What could make voters gravitate to larger parties?

Currently, after elections the President meets with the heads of all of the incoming Knesset parties, asking each of them for a recommendation as to who should form the next coalition, and then granting the right to form the coalition to the person he thinks has the best chance to do so. Instead of allowing the President the honor of tapping the person he thinks is most capable of forming a coalition, grant the chairman of the largest party the first right to form a coalition.

Today, a right-wing voter can feel equally comfortable in who he is endorsing for prime minister whether he casts his vote for Likud, Bayit Yehudi, or Yisrael Beytenu. Why? Because they are all part of the right-wing camp and will support Netanyahu to be tapped as the coalition builder. At the same time, after Netanyahu is tapped, Yisrael Beytenu, Bayit Yehudi, and other Likud coalition partners can attempt to drive a hard bargain with Netanyahu, knowing that his alternative partners are limited. Of course, the same phenomenon is true for left-wing voters who can feel equally confident voting for Labor as they could voting for Meretz or Hatnua.

According the leader of the largest party the first right to form a government would force voters to think twice before casting their ballots. Would a left-winger be willing to back Meretz if it leaves Labor with fewer seats than Likud, and Netanyahu returns again as prime minister? Would a right-winger be willing to cast a ballot for Yisrael Beytenu, if it means that Likud will be just shy of beating out a joint Labor-Hatnua ticket?

To be the largest party and hold a mere third of what is required to form a coalition perfectly encapsulates the crisis of governance that we are facing. Conferring the first right to form a governing coalition to the head of the largest party would more directly put the decision of who will lead the country in the hands of the people, without divorcing the Knesset party selection from the selection of the Prime Minister. Such a change would offer Israelis hope of escaping our current instability and for a stable government which can provide the coherence and long-term vision we need to lead us through challenging times.

Yehoshua Oz is IDI's Director of International Communications.

This article was first published in The Jerusalem Post on December 13, 2014, and has been reprinted with permission.