Witnessing the chaotic and sometimes inexplicable madness of Israeli politics, academics and wags have often compared Israel to another politically “difficult” Mediterranean state with hot weather and hotter politics—Italy.
And yet despite sharing with Italy the reputation for political and bureaucratic chaos and instability, Israel, particularly since the 2000s, has been able to flourish despite the manifest failings of its political system. A judicious history of Israel over the last decade would focus on its strong economic growth, generally improved diplomatic relations with neighbors near and far, and the more limited character of the conflict with the Palestinians. Even as the European Union certainly made Italian trains run on better time, this is not a record that Italy, a country on the brink of economic crisis, has been able to match.
Now, however, Israeli politics are looking dangerously Italian—a perilous situation to be in in the Middle East. After a second election in under 12 months, neither Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud nor Benny Gantz’s Blue and White have been able to form a workable coalition in the 120-seat Knesset. Yet another election has been scheduled for March, and it could prove as inconclusive as the first two. Though Benjamin Netanyahu, also facing indictment, remains prime minister for now, Israel now effectively has no functioning government.
There are, no doubt, many causes for the present crisis. The unwillingness of Jews in the Jewish state to agree on something as important as a government might prompt many Jewish jokes. I would submit, however, the principal cause of the crisis is the founding form of Israeli elections: proportional representation, or PR, a system in which different parties gain seats in proportion to the number of overall votes they have received. Israel has conducted elections based on PR since its founding, as indeed did the institutions of the pre-state Yishuv. And, throughout, PR has damaged the ability of the country to achieve stable and strong governments. If Israel was able to survive or flourish despite PR, the current crisis raises some serious concerns about its ability to do so in the future.
What, exactly, is PR? To be sure, the system, practiced in countries as diverse as New Zealand, Germany, and, yes, Italy, has quite a few local variations. Yet the core idea is the allocation of power or seats in a parliament to a party or candidate in direct proportion to the absolute number of ballots received. Thus, if the “Reformed Menshevik” Party led by Rogachevsky, say, receives 13% of the national popular vote in a hypothetical Republic of Pinsker, the party is allotted the equivalent of 13% of seats in the national parliament. It would not matter how specific “Reformed Menshevik” candidates perform vis-a-vis candidates from other parties. Properly speaking, the politicians who will fill the banks of parliament do not directly face the voters at all. The number of representatives each party gets is simply determined by the absolute vote. Each party can come up with its own way of determining who gets in and why. In Israel, this is the famous “ordered party list” often worked at party primaries.
To its proponents, PR is clear, elegant, more given to compromises, and democratic—more democratic allegedly than the first-past-the-post electoral system in Britain, the U.S., and Canada, where the country is divided up into specific territorial districts and party candidates compete for the votes of voters within that district. In practice, this means the exclusion or minimization of certain smaller parties from parliament or congress. Even if the Canadian Green Party wins some small chunk of the national vote in an election, it won’t succeed in entering parliament unless it manages to win specific districts. Thus, many votes for such parties are said to be “wasted.”
PR as a basis for democratic elections is a step-grandchild of the Swiss political-philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. According to Rousseau, if a political community is to be worthy of the name, it must represent the “general will” of all of its members.
First-past-the-post fails this test since it seems to exclude the votes of those who vote for candidates who don’t manage to win their ridings or districts. Indeed, first-past-the-post more closely hews to the theory of the English political-philosopher John Locke, who wrote of representative government that was accountable to specific people in specific locations.
The chief advantage of proportional representation seems to be the warm feeling of every voter that their vote matters regardless of whether their neighbors lean a very different way. Yet in practice, PR typically leads to weak, chaotic, or nonexisting governments, as has often occurred in Germany, Italy, and now Israel.
In these countries, modern diverse democracies all, it is next to impossible for one party ever to win an outright majority of 50% of the votes plus 1. Thus all governments are necessarily coalition governments. While this may seem to be a recipe for moderation or compromise, the reverse tends to be the case. While postelection compromises are sometimes possible, in the lead up to the vote, parties are incentivized to stick to the hardcore version of their message in order to maintain the allegiance of their natural constituencies. When a party does manage to cobble together a coalition under PR, the resulting government is usually unstable both structurally as well as in policy. Though Netanyahu has been prime minister for the past decade, he has, entirely due to the pressures of coalitions, had to surrender vast parts of “government agenda” to rival parties—religion to the Haredi parties, and economics to the populist parties. Though his true passion has always been economic reform, Bibi has had to focus strictly on national defense in order to appease coalition partners. This is a hardly a recipe for unified, intelligent, coherent government. In PR systems, therefore, “big tent” parties such as they exist in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere are impossible.
First-past-the-post, on the other hand, tends to lead to stronger or effective governments. To be sure, as British and Canadians in particular can attest, first-past-the-post can also produce minority governments, less stable than majority ones. And yet the logic of first-past-the-post is the consolidation of the polity toward two main parties, with one or the other gaining the upper hand at any given time. And even the odd minority government proves rather stable compared to the situation under PR. Consider, for example, the German elections of 2013, when Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union won what should have been a historic landslide with 42% of the vote and yet was for months still unable to form a working government.
Americans, British and others who have first-past-the-post systems tend to take for granted the benefits of having a specific, named representative who must compete to win over a certain jurisdiction, and then serves as its representative. This means that citizens know the name of the person they might theoretically call, email, or tweet at if they are bothered or, rarely, pleased by some local or national issue. To be sure, these countries all now suffer from various difficulties that weaken the link and accountability between a representative and the territory/people he or she is supposed to represent. And yet, in such systems, representation is built in. In PR systems, members of the party are “accountable” mainly to the party bosses, power brokers, and lastly party members who ultimately decide whether those on the list will even get a chance to keep their jobs.
The current crisis in Israel is fed in large measure by its PR system. In the two 2019 elections, voters overwhelmingly chose “parties of the right” (including in the orbit of Blue and White) over “parties of the left.” Even granting the unique calculations forced by the prosecution of Prime Minister Netanyahu for corruption, the main reason Likud has been unable to form a government is because of the different demands/sentiments/calculations of the other parties within the natural orbit of the right. Meanwhile, the other largest party, Blue and White, has been unable to form a government either because it simply does not have enough of “left” seats to add up. The result has been deadlock and paralysis.
The odds of Israel introducing a first-past-the-post electoral system are admittedly very long. The bureaucrats and party bosses of the big parties would stubbornly resist a move that would rob them of some of their power. The smaller parties would cry hell about an “anti-democratic” coup. And yet the move could receive support because it would ultimately benefit the larger parties, which would be in a strong position to swallow up the smaller parties in their natural orbit. For if they had to compete with the bigger players in specific districts, smaller parties would immediately see that they have limited or no chances to win. The ruling mantra would be “if you can’t beat them, join them.” One could envision Likud and Blue and White being larger, “big tent” style parties, center-right and center-left, with different factions within them, to be sure, but still recognizably single parties.
The largest advantages, of course, would be to the public interest itself. Israelis would be spared the unhealthy drama of frequent elections, and strong, confident, more effective governments could be established for a reasonable tenure of time. And first-past-the-post could lead to a healthier form of “representation” in Israeli society. Don’t like the medical services in Tayibe or the pollution from the Ashkelon power plant? Finally, there’s an elected politician you can call who is theoretically supposed to be responsible.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is certainly aware of the limitations of the current system of government. In an interview with British writer Charles Moore earlier this decade, he warned Britain against adopting PR. Leading the charge for first-past-the-post could be Netanyahu’s pre-retirement parting gift to his countrymen, cementing his legacy.
Statesmen ranging from Alexander Hamilton to David Ben-Gurion have recognized that political crises, dangerous as they are, can sometimes afford the opportunity for necessary revolution or reform. The current paralysis in Israel demonstrates that PR has become a clear danger to the long-term health of Israel. Now is the time to push for such reforms.
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Neil Rogachevsky teaches Israel studies and political thought at the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought of Yeshiva University.