Israeli Politics Aren’t (Totally) Broken, But We Can Still Fix Them
Before last month’s national elections, I wrote about the nature of the race and how it had been stripped of all ideology and meaning.
With all the votes counted and coalition negotiations in full swing, it appears there will either be a shaky coalition of strange bedfellows led by Benjamin Netanyahu, a shaky coalition of strange bedfellows led by a rotation of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, or no coalition at all and yet another election.
Much of the political gridlock can be blamed on the fight over whether Prime Minister Netanyahu remains in power. However, even if he were to leave the political arena, or be acquitted of the charges against him, it is that clear the system can use an overhaul.
The first item that must be addressed is the fact that the prime minister is under investigation. While Netanyahu is the first prime minister to serve in office under indictment, both Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon faced investigations while in office. The Prime Minister of Israel has one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Adding years-long investigations while serving is not in the interest of the country.
The prime minister should be immune from criminal investigation while in office — with exceptions for truly grave or violent crimes. The Knesset would, of course, maintain the prerogative to remove the prime minister from office. The criminal statute of limitations should be frozen while the prime minister is in office, and there should be a term limit to prevent a prime minister using the office as a permanent shield from prosecution.
The second glaring issue is that members of Knesset (MKs) have no constituencies of Israeli citizens. In the cases of non-democratic parties (meaning those where the list of candidates is chosen exclusively by the party leader), such as Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu, the parties are essentially an alter ego of the party leader, and the members of their factions owe their loyalty to the party leader alone. But even for the democratic parties such as Likud and Labor, after the primary, no members of the faction other than the party leader truly face voters or must concern themselves with constituent services.
The new model I’m suggesting would maintain the current basic structure. There would still be a unicameral 120 seat Knesset. However, only half the Knesset would be elected exactly as it is today — the parties would submit national lists and be allotted seats in the parliament based on their share of the vote total.
The major change is that the remaining 60 seats would be based on geographic districts. With close to 9.3 million citizens, that would amount to 60 districts of roughly 155,000 citizens.
Under this formula, ministers and deputy ministers would all come from the national lists, but committee chairs would mostly come from the constituent districts. This way, those most concerned with constituent services would be most focused on the granular details of legislating, while the leaders of the national slates would concern themselves with executive ministerial functions.
The candidates for the 60 constituent districts would be aligned with one of the parties submitting a national list, and would be part of that party’s faction once elected to the Knesset. The national lists would still need to cross a threshold to make the Knesset, but even if they fall short, any candidate winning a local district-based election would enter the Knesset. While this could present a scenario where a single MK could be the “kingmaker” in a close election, the fact that these MKs would not be eligible for ministerial roles would greatly reduce the type of personal ransom a party of one or two, whose national list failed to clear the threshold, could demand to join a coalition.
The district lines would be drawn by a non-partisan commission of technocrats, and approved by the full Knesset once a decade. While some manipulation to favor a party or demographic group is unavoidable, the commission’s mandate, anchored in law, would be to draw lines that are as contiguous as possible and that keep municipalities together.
Because of the way that the Israeli population is distributed geographically, drawing logical, contiguous districts should naturally create districts that will ensure every major demographic group will have at least some representation in the Knesset. And, unlike today, the main mandate of those representatives will be to provide their local constituency a voice in national politics.
This system would not remove party loyalty from the equation, but it would mean that half the Knesset would be attuned to the needs of their local constituency in addition to their party leadership. It would also allow voters the option to split their ticket. For instance, there could a voter with centrist views who nevertheless believes Benjamin Netanyahu is better suited to be Prime Minister than Yair Lapid. That voter would now have the option to vote for the national Likud list, while also supporting the local Yesh Atid candidate.
This short outline is oversimplified and leaves out a great many details. Revamping the Israeli electoral system will be complex, and any attempt at change will surely be met with stiff resistance. However, it is imperative that such an attempt is made.
Israel’s electoral system has served it extraordinarily well. It is still nothing short of a miracle that people from dozens of countries, most with no democratic tradition, returned home after 2,000 years to establish a vibrant democracy.
The system does not need to be torn down completely, nor will Israel collapse if we continue to elect the Knesset as we have. But as the country has grown, and with the benefit of seven decades of hindsight, it is clear that the system can be improved. Given the current stalemate, the public should be as open as ever to major reforms that will make the system more responsive and representative. Now is the time to try.
Justin Pozmanter is a publishing Adjunct at The MirYam Institute. He is a former foreign policy advisor to Minister Tzachi Hanegbi. Before making Aliyah, he worked at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and practiced law.
The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.