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Can Israel’s Electoral System Be Fixed?

Can Israel’s Electoral System Be Fixed?

January 18, 2013 in 2009 May-June, Israel
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Gideon Doron, a 64-year-old professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, has been fighting for electoral reform for over three decades. Last year, frustrated by the lack of progress, he came up with a quintessentially Israeli ploy to both mock and rally support against the status quo. Taking advantage of Israel’s liberal electoral qualifications, he founded his own political party, “The Israelis,” a one-man boondoggle focused on a single issue: electoral reform.

Doron’s party was one of 33 on the ballot in February (an unprecedented 43 parties registered, but 10 chose not to run), and it received fewer than 1,000 votes—not enough to capture a seat in the Knesset. But Doron didn’t run to win; he sought “to get reform to the top of the public agenda.” “The registration fee was $20,000,” he says, “but the TV and publicity—that was free.”

The campaign to reform Israel’s electoral system is as old as the country—but the system itself is older. “The electoral system that we have is a reflection of the 19th century idea of how to represent as many Jews as possible,” says Doron. “The Zionist Congress wanted to create the image that it represented Jews from all over Europe, that it spoke for all Jews.” It had no other choice, he explains, if it wanted to enlist support—and collect money—from international Jewry.

As a result, the Jewish Agency, the Jews’ de facto government in Palestine before 1948, adopted a system that was as inclusive as possible—one based on proportional representation, national party lists and a low threshold for parliamentary representation. “Under pre-1948 circumstances this was a reasonable system,” the Jerusalem Post columnist and Shalem Center lecturer Amotz Asa-El wrote recently in the publication Azure, “since the Yishuv [the community of Jews who lived in Palestine before 1948] was minuscule, its elected representatives were not sovereign, and the representation of myriad ideologies and communities, as allowed by the proportional system, seemed both just and practical.”

Not long after Israel declared independence,  its provisional government began to plan for a convention to create a constitution, which would, among other things, establish rules for elections. It appointed a three-member committee to determine a procedure for electing delegates to the convention. One member was Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency and leader of the dominant, left-wing party, Mapai. Ben-Gurion admired the British system, which he called “the most efficient political system in the world.” In particular, he was impressed that the British had managed to maintain their “political freedom even during the storm of war.” More broadly, he felt that it struck a healthy balance between representation and governability. “Two-party rule,” he said, was “absolutely necessary.”

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