Since 1948, Israel has had 33 governments. Only three of them have completed the full four-year term in office, and Israel’s proportional electoral system is the reason for that troubling record. It is imperative that the system be reformed, because the survival of Israel is at stake.
The Israeli system of government requires wide-ranging coalitions, often creating divisions and inhibiting progress. Israeli politicians must constantly monitor the status of coalitions cobbled together in the aftermath of each election. Sometimes the price paid to keep these improbable arrangements intact is billions of shekels used to buy the co-operation of coalition members.
As Israelis find themselves thrust into another election campaign, the very nature of Israeli politics raises an important question: Is the proportional electoral system preventing peace?
In Israel, each party creates ranked lists of Knesset aspirants. Once the votes are tallied, each party is allocated seats based on its performance in the popular vote. Members of the Knesset are not elected directly, and because of that some may feel they don’t owe any obligation to the Israeli public. Their real loyalties are to their parties, and the real decision-makers are the merkazei miflagot (party centres) and va’adot mesadrot (organizing committees).
Meanwhile, coalition maintenance requires massive concessions and elaborate backroom dealings. Often, smaller parties find themselves wielding the balance of power, able to prop up a government or bring it crashing down. In particular, the religious parties – Zionist and non-Zionist alike – end up punching above their weight, and can wrangle support for their pet issues. As such, Israel’s unresponsive electoral system holds crucial implications for the peace process and regional stability.
Case in point: In 1987, Israel was led by a coalition government formed in the wake of the election of 1984. Under the terms of the coalition deal, Shimon Peres would become prime minister and Yitzhak Shamir would assume the roles of deputy prime minister and foreign minister. After 25 months in office, Peres and Shamir would switch roles. (Isaac Herzog and Tzipi LIvni, the leaders of Israel’s Labor and Hatnua parties respectively, announced a similar agreement last week.)
In April 1987, Peres, who by now was foreign minister, and Jordan’s King Hussein reached several agreements, which became known as the “London Accord.” The deal recognized three entities: the State of Israel and Jordan, which were to remain as they were, and a new entity that was to include the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the context of a Jordanian-Palestinian federation. Under the terms of this agreement, Israelis living in the territories could have held onto their Israeli passports and Jerusalem would have remained united, with each religion taking responsibility for its own holy sites.
It was the best peace deal Israel could have ever achieved and would have changed the face of the Middle East forever. But prime minister Shamir torpedoed the plan, arguing that it would not stand up to the test of time. Some have called this decision the biggest political mistake since the establishment of the State of Israel. If this is true, then the rotating arrangement between Peres and Shamir, and the proportional electoral system that fostered such a deal, are to blame.
Israel’s electoral system resembles more a “market of hagglers,” than a serious ideological arena. And in addition to endangering peace prospects, the system may very well impede high-quality Israelis from venturing into politics. Some conclude it’s simply best to avoid the charade of wheeling and dealing. I’ve seen it first-hand.
Meanwhile, some voices for reform are arguing that Israelis should adopt a passive approach to change ahead of the next election. If the Knesset cannot, or will not, adopt electoral change, voters might have to take another approach and refuse to vote altogether. n
Arie Raif is vice-chairman & CEO of the Canadian Peres Center For Peace. In 1974, he won the nomination of the Independent Liberal Party for the Israeli parliament.