Israel’s electoral system is the root cause of the disheartening polarization and superficiality on display in the current election season. Many wrongly point to the egos of our politicians as the underlying reason. In reality, powerful constitutional dis-incentives for collaboration shape our politics.
Israel is a parliamentary democracy, whereby voters elect parties to serve in the 120-seat Knesset, based on proportional representation. Thus, for example, a party that receives 10% of the votes would hold 12 seats. After elections, parties need to establish a coalition of a minimum of 61 MKs, the head of which becomes the prime minister.
This system encourages divisiveness among the public. The 34 parties that stand for election next week distinguish themselves by inciting and polarizing: Religious vs. secular, poor vs. rich, Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim, periphery against center, hawks against doves, settlers against development towns and Jews against Arabs. On the right, the joint list of the Likud and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu has lost power to smaller sectoral parties such as Shas and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. On the left, Lapid, Livni, Yachimovich and Mofaz of Yesh Atid, Hatnua, Labor and Kadima, respectively, failed to join forces in spite of evident similarities in their vision.
Meanwhile, after the elections, some of these parties will inevitably make up the next government, and many of them will repeatedly join forces on various legislative initiatives. Hence, while the public is divided, the politicians collaborate in sharing power.
Electoral systems drive and determine the political conduct of the public and politicians, and the overall performance of the state. A clear and evident example is France: The Fourth Republic, established after the Second World War, was a failed polity, while the Fifth Republic, which emerged following a constitutional reform in 1958, served France’s prosperity for decades.
Nowadays, the polarization of American politics and the deadlock in Washington may also be structural and result from a crisis in their electoral system. Decades of manipulation of voter districts, known as gerrymandering, have turned most of them into either ‘red’ or ‘blue’, Republican or Democrat, respectively, breeding hardline politicians who cater to their ideological bases and not pragmatically to the center. The United States thrived when it was purple. It is muddling through when it is red or blue.
A reversal of these patterns in Israel is readily available with a simple amendment that establishes that the head of the party that gets the highest number of votes becomes prime minister. This would encourage politicians to join forces in inclusive political frameworks and generate powerful incentives for broad sectors of the public to support two ruling Zionist parties on the right and on the left. It would also funnel politicians to be centrist and pragmatic.
The time for such a reform has come: A large parliamentary block would support it, and powerful forces are mobilizing among civil society as well. The position of the likely PM Netanyahu and the Likud party will be key, as in the current election campaign they have been the primary victim of the present electoral system. Such a reform should be the constitutional legacy of the coming Knesset.
Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Reut Institute, and served in the bureau of the Prime Minister between 1999-01. He has been active in attempts to reform Israeli governance since