It’s time to change the Israeli electoral system

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The summer session of the Knesset opens today as a huge question mark hangs over the future of the current government.

The opposition will introduce a motion to disperse the Knesset, which, with the Ra’am party still determined to boycott its coalition partners, is expected to pass its preliminary reading. Again, the opposition has only 54 seats in the Knesset, well below the 61 votes needed to pass the law through new readings or replace the government.

There is no governmental stability in Israel. We have just gone through four rounds of elections in three years and a fifth is already on the horizon, even before the government has completed its first year in office.

A government of change? Leave me alone. This is an opportune time to underscore once again the need for changes to our electoral system. Almost no government in Israel has managed to fulfill its full mandate, indicating a need for change. We need a system suitable for Israel and all its tribes. A system which, on the one hand, will guarantee stability and, on the other hand, will ensure appropriate representation of all sectors of society.

The plurality of parties in Israel is the root of all evil. The turning point came in 1992 when direct elections to the prime minister were instituted. This allowed Israeli citizens to vote for one prime minister and another for a party. The law was meant to be the first step in a comprehensive reform of the system of government.

Three prime ministers were directly elected – Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon – but the reform was doomed because no changes were made to the method of electing Knesset members. In 2003, when Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister, with the agreement of the opposition, the direct ballot for the post of Prime Minister was cancelled, and we reverted to the previous system.

The citizens of Israel have grown accustomed to voting for a party that exactly matches their worldview. This led to the fragmentation of the political system with splinters of both left and right parties. In the United States, there are only two major parties; in the United Kingdom, only three; and only four parties participated in the recent French presidential elections. This is how it works in most democratic countries: citizens choose between two or three parties. In Israel, by contrast, there are at least 10 parties in the Knesset and dozens of outside parties running in every election.

The decision to raise the electoral threshold to 3.25% of the vote was not enough. With a wide dispersion of votes, the ability to form a coalition shrinks. However, raising the threshold by another percentage point could bring more parties together. Israel should have no more than four parties: center-right, center-left, ultra-Orthodox and Arab.

There is no real answer to the question of why Labour, Meretz, Blue and White and Yesh Atid don’t run on a single center-left ticket like the Democratic Party in the United States.

There is no real reason why Likud, Yamina, New Hope, Israel Beiteinu and some of the religious Zionists cannot run under a center-right flag like the Republicans in the United States. Even with a magnifying glass, there are no significant differences between New Hope, Likud and Yamina. The only thing preventing unity is that party leaders Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett don’t want to work with Benjamin Netanyahu.

United Torah Judaism and Shas in its current ultra-Orthodox format can work together and realize their full potential. In the Arab sector too, a common denominator can be found between Ra’am and the Joint Arab List to bring them together to work for the benefit of their constituents. After all Ra’am MK Mansour Abbas proved that if there is a will there is a way.

A return to direct prime minister elections would not be a bad thing. This would allow the electorate to vote for whoever they want as Prime Minister in the same way as local authority elections. But we need to reform the way MPs are elected and integrate national and regional elections, which will address the need for proper representation for all segments of Israeli society. If this does not happen, the mandate to form a government will be given to the leader of one of the two largest parties. This alone would drive the parties together.

What is needed is courage on the part of political leaders on both sides to agree to change reality and not just their political situation.

Nechama Duek is a journalist and political commentator.

This article has been originally published by Israel Hayom.

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