Sheri Oz – Everyone Knows we need Electoral Reform… So?
As a result of our current national political debacle, former Haifa mayor, Yona Yahav, wrote a letter to the editor of Haaretz in which he calls for electoral reform. He suggests that we would not be finding ourselves in the current paralysis had reform taken place at any of the previous times it was attempted. First I will present a translation into English of Yahav’s letter, with his permission, and then add a few words of my own. I conclude with a challenge.
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From within the fog of the Coronavirus danger and the unprecedented decision to plunge our entire population into lockdown, Benjamin Netanyahu’s voice is heard suggesting “unity government”. This call is not a diversionary tactic but a result of the fact of us being immersed for years – and especially in this last year – in a political deadlock that is the fruit of the electoral system in Israel.
Our electoral system has known ups and downs. In fact, the first one to identify the accumulating political disasters within the system was David Ben Gurion, who worked without success to effect change. Attempts at modification did not stop even during the first government of Yitzhak Rabin which tasked the young minister Gad Yaakobi with recommending changes. The special committee he set up proposed a system in which half of the Knesset seats would be elected by the current system, the proportional system, and the other half would be elected by regional elections. Had Yaakobi’s recommendations been accepted, the current spectacle would not have taken place. Furthermore, Haifa, the third-largest city in Israel, is without representation in the Knesset. For the sake of comparison, note that in the 14th Knesset, in which the writer of this piece sat, there were ten MKs from Haifa.
Should a national unity government actually be established for coping with the virus that threatens us and the entire world, it would be worthwhile to take advantage of this opportune moment by establishing a committee assigned with the sole task of recommending a new electoral system. This committee would have equal membership of MKs from both sides of the aisle and will include the relevant experts. They would convene for a limited time under the auspices of the president.
Without a new electoral system, we will continue to see unrelenting rounds of elections. Even if, in the end, a government will be formed, it will not be stable and will not be able to adopt or decide on significant legislation, especially not legislation with largely long-term significance. Now there exists the opportunity for taking advantage of the goodwill that will not soon return. It is incumbent on those representing large blocs of the electorate on both sides to help make this a reality.
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At the same time, Algemeiner published an op-ed by author and editor Benjamin Kerstein in which he claimed that the problems with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s unsatisfactory handling of the Coronavirus emergency goes deep:
This problem is rooted not in Litzman’s personal failings or some in his community’s alleged refusal to comport with government regulations, but with an electoral system that allows for small parties to exercise undue influence over the government and results in a devaluation of the solemn duties incumbent on those who serve the Israeli people in critical positions.
If the case of Litzman teaches us anything, it is that Israel is very badly in need of political reform and, unfortunately, is very unlikely to get it.
Kerstein refers to the underlying problem addressed by efforts to reform the way our Knesset is elected: the undue influence of small sectorial parties over representatives of the majority of the population in the ideological center. And Yahav points out another major problem, namely that of regarding the entire country as if it is a single constituency as we have under our proportional representation system.
The former causes paralysis and exertion of the will of the few over the many, an exact contradiction to what democracy is supposed to entail. The latter means that large sections of the nation are not represented at all in the national government, something that makes it difficult for their concerns to receive the attention that they need. This is detrimental, not only to the peripheral regions but to the country as a whole. While it may have been less problematic in the earlier decades of the modern state, population growth renders it a very significant issue today in what should be a vibrant democracy available to everyone in the country regardless of the place of residence.
Yahav cites the national unity government that seemed on the cusp of being formed when he penned his letter as being an opportune moment that we may not see soon again. But we watch as Bibi’s political virtuosity plays out before us: we see how he manipulated Gantz to break up Blue&White, is running the clock on Gantz’s mandate to form a government and somehow managed to gain a majority that may be enough for him to be able to cobble together the government that will keep us from fourth elections and keeps the PM crown on his head, much to the combined amazement and disgust of so many Israelis of all political persuasions. And that opportune moment for electoral reform slips by as if it never was.
But we should not mourn that fact. For such potential existed even more strongly after the 1984 elections, the results of which was also a tie between right and left. Neither Labour nor Likud could form a government and they established a national unity government that did not depend on the religious parties. They may still have been under the influence of the amazing showing in 1977 of the Democratic Movement for Change (Dash) that had electoral reform at the top of its party platform — that fizzled out quite quickly, however.
The public supported electoral reform and both Labour and Likud could see the benefits for them. They formed a committee to produce legislation to that effect (just as there had been proposals in the past — in 1953, 1954, 1958) but nothing came of this. The same thing happened in 1988, when Yaakobi, a long-time proponent of electoral reform, led a committee whose proposal did not make it through the Knesset. In 1995, political scientists Diskin and Diskin wrote that:
A main factor that deterred Likud and Labour from reaching an adequate agreement was a kind of ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ situation. While both parties did have such a common interest and could have benefited from electoral reform in the long run, it seemed that, in the short run, each would have gained the support of the small pivotal parties by refraining from any agreement on the issue.
Therefore, the very attempts to reduce the stranglehold of the ultra-religious parties were stymied by fears of retribution on the part of these same parties should electoral reform not bring about the desired results. What hope do we have of change under the conditions in which politicians cannot trust each other to keep the good of the country foremost in mind long enough to change the rules of the game in a way both sides know is necessary?
Yahav suggests a special committee be formed under the auspices of the president. We have already tried that. In 2005, then-President Moshe Katsav established a national commission for just that purpose. In spite of the distinguished members of that commission, its recommendations led nowhere.
Almost four years ago, I wrote about the need for an updating of our electoral system something I strongly believe in, strongly enough to have taken part in the 1990 hunger strike in the Rose Garden opposite the Knesset and demonstration in Tel Aviv, an amazing show of public craving for electoral reform. And just this past December, Middle East Correspondent Neville Teller wrote in The Jerusalem Post that:
Electoral reform simply must be a major element in the political program of Israel’s next government, whenever it is formed.
Whenever it is formed, indeed.
I am not holding my breath that any bill instituting the electoral reform this country so badly needs will actually make it past three readings in the Knesset without lots of help from outside the Knesset. Until now, such bills rarely made it out of the committee and onto the Knesset floor and the one or two times it did, it never got past the first reading.
Perhaps Yona Yahav, with all his experience in politics, will take this on as his next project. He did really wonderful things for Haifa, something that Haifa residents seem to recognize more now in retrospect than they did when he was in office, as is often the case. If he has not yet found a new job, can I suggest he establish an organization that will lobby for the electoral reform he knows we need? Should he succeed, that would be an amazing service to the country he loves. And were he to decide to take this on, I have no doubt that with his determination, energies and understanding of the system he may actually be able to achieve what now seems impossible.