Several years ago, I presented a paper at a conference of the American Political Science Association in Washington, D.C. Many people were amazed to learn that Israel did not have a written constitution. People were also dismayed that despite Israel’s reputation as a democracy, members of its Knesset were not individually elected by and accountable to the voters in constituency elections.
Proportional representation in Israel
This absence of accountability is the result of Israel’s system of proportional representation, whereby citizens are compelled to vote, not for an individual candidate representing a particular district in which voter resides, but for a party’s national list of candidates, most of whose names are inevitably unknown to the voter! This makes Israeli democracy a fraud, about which Israeli political scientists and analysts are virtually mum.
Many citizens of Israel, including academics, believe that such is the smallness of this country, both in population and area, that multi-district or constituency elections is inappropriate. They are wedded to the existing parliamentary system whereby the entire country constitutes a single electoral district in which parties compete and win Knesset seats on the basis of Proportional Representation (PR).
This, the ordinary citizen believes, enables distinct groups – ideological, ethnic, religious, or otherwise – to be represented by distinct parties in the Knesset regardless of whether the individuals composing these groups are dispersed throughout the country.
The advocates of PR also contend that representation of geographical districts, or regional elections, leads to disproportionate representation of diverse groups and gerrymandering. Let us distinguish facts from fictions.
Of the more than 80 states classified by Freedom House as democracies, hardly any besides Israel, Slovakia, and Uruguay make the entire country a single electoral district in which parties compete for parliamentary seats by means of Proportional Representation (PR).
But telling Israelis that their reputed democracy was virtually the only one that compels citizens to vote for fixed party slates was not going to endear me to the Establishment and to spastic Israeli political scientists and journalists, who behave as if they profit from this long-obsolete and corrupt political system.
No one was going to win the Israel Prize by publishing articles, books, and policy papers informing the people that Israel is almost the only reputed democracy where legislators are not individually accountable to the voters in regional or constituency elections, hence, that Israel’s have been effectively disenfranchised.
To forestall any rejoinder, I had to add that this undemocratic system – this lack of constituency elections – is not the result of Israel’s minute size, since 48 democracies are smaller in population than Israel, while 26 are smaller!
I have never ceased to be disturbed by the fact that in Israel an incumbent Knesset member does not have to defend his voting record against a rival candidate in a local election. If an incumbent MK had violated his campaign pledges, or was responsible for a failed policy or even a national debacle, he would not have to worry about being exposed by a rival for his office.
The institution of voting for party slates enables those who become members of the Knesset, especially those who become cabinet ministers, to ignore public opinion with impunity. Thus, despite his authorship of the disastrous Oslo Agreement in 1993, Mr. Shimon Peres never lost his seat in the Knesset until July 2007, and then only because the Knesset elected him President of the State of Israel!
Talk about Chelm: Chelmism is the essence of Israeli politics, and it is has been made kosher by the ultra-Orthodox Israeli political science!
The (distinctly) minor parties
Also appalling is the multiplicity of parties resulting from Proportional Representation with a low electoral threshold (now 3.25%).
Recall the absurdity of recent Israeli elections having more than 32 competing parties! Is it any wonder that that no party has ever come close to winning a majority of the seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset? Israel has never had a majority party at the head of its government. This also makes nonsense of public opinion in Israel, which suffers from paralysis or cerebral inanition.
A coalition of rival parties is thus required to form a Government in Israel. The leaders of these parties become cabinet ministers. After consulting with the various party leaders, Israel’s President names the party leader who he thinks can form a Cabinet representing a majority of the Knesset’s membership.
An Israeli cabinet consists of roughly 25 ministers, a plurality of which is appointed by the Prime Minister. Since the ministers are party leaders, they occupy safe places at the top of their party’s electoral list, which makes them impervious to public opinion.
It should be stressed that an MK’s overriding ambition is to become a cabinet minister – the road to power and political longevity. (This is why Knesset members (even MKs like Moshe Feiglin,) oppose constituency elections, which might cost them their well-paid jobs.
Why votes of no confidence do not happen in Israel
Even more significant, since the Cabinet consists of party leaders, no Labor, Likud-led, or Kadima-led government has ever been toppled by a Knesset vote of no confidence! To fully understand this extraordinary situation, some little known facts need to be publicized.
In Israel, as in all parliamentary systems, the prime minister’s cabinet typically consists of members of the legislature (parliament). However, unlike other parliamentary regimes, where members of the legislature are individually elected by the voters in regional elections, in Israel MKs owe their position and perks to their party leaders and machinery.
Since the ministers of the Cabinet are the leaders of the parties comprising the ruling majority coalition in the Knesset, the Cabinet, and above all the Prime Minister, can readily prevent the Knesset from toppling the Government. He knows, and they know, that toppling the Government means new elections and this means that several MKs may lose their jobs, i.e. their livelihood!
This also means that Israel has a prime ministerial system of government (a soft despotism,) which is largely the reason why Benjamin Netanyahu has held the premiership with hardly an interruption since 1995. This is despite the failure of the Oslo or Israel-PLO Agreement of 1993, to which he, like Shimon Peres, has sacrificed his intellect; two officials who have never been held politically accountable for the tens of thousands of wounded and traumatized Jewish victims of their inept, not to say pusillanimous policy.
Returning however, to the system of Proportional Representation (PR) which has enthralled Israel since 1948, it’s very much a fraud. Contrary to its idolaters, proportional representation of distinct groups in a single nationwide district election does not ensure a party’s fidelity to its campaign pledges. In Israel’s 1992 election campaign, the Labor Party’s platform rejected recognition of, or negotiation with, the PLO, as well as withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Once ensconced in office, however, Labor betrayed the voters.
Much the same may be said of the Likud in 1996 (the first national election of a prime minister). When Prime Minister Netanyahu declared on CNN that no one ever expected him to accept the Oslo Accords as a basis for the “peace process,” or meet with Yasser Arafat, or withdraw from Hebron, he unwittingly admitted that he had betrayed the expectations of those who voted both for him and his Likud Party.
Moreover, despite the fact that the Likud Party won more than 70 percent of the votes in February 2003, when it campaigned against the Labor Party’s policy of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon adopted Labor’s policy and thus effectively nullified that 2003 election!
In fact, in October of the following year, the Knesset “legitimated” Sharon’s coup by enacting the Gaza evacuation law, thanks to the votes of 23 Likud MKs who thereby betrayed their February 2003 election pledges. The 8,000 Jews expelled from Gaza may have wondered about Israel’s reputation as a democracy. Nor is this all.
If Sharon’s nullification of that 2003 election was not a putsch or political coup d’état, consider the spiritual coup that Prime Minister Netanyahu pulled four months after the March 2009 election.
Thus, in June of that year, Mr. Netanyahu, without Knesset or public debate (and contrary to his own Likud Party’s constitution), endorsed the creation of an Arab Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria, the cradle of Jewish civilization! So much for Proportional Representation, exalted as one of the blessings of Israeli democracy.
The fact that almost every democracy on the planet manages to conduct public business by means of multi-district elections should dispel the fiction that Israel can’t function well or justly without its existing parliamentary electoral system. The truth is that 68 years of this “system” has engendered the shoddiest politics.
Recall the 1999 elections when 29 Knesset Members hopped over to rival parties in order to obtain safe seats. Israel’s political “system” is a disgrace as well as a disaster, and only the ignorant along with self-serving politicians want to preserve it!
Do you know of any religious MK who wants to change it, as might a reincarnated Yitro? Have you heard political scientists en mass denounce this vile and vicious system?
Israeli politicians are often faulted for their lack of national vision. Hardly anyone sees the connection between their parochialism and Israel’s faction-ridden system of Proportional Representaion, and this quite apart from the plethora of parties produced by Israel’s low electoral threshold. That almost all of the world’s democracies shun this anarchic electoral system, in which no party has ever come close to winning an electoral majority, is no accident. In this case, Israel would do well to imitate the “gentiles”!
An alternative: plurality elections
If it be said that regional elections will transform politicians into agents for local interests, this is only partly true, and its partial truth should be welcomed, for the concerns of small communities in Israel receive little attention by the government. Israel needs to explore alternatives to PR.
A profusion of electoral systems exist. The simplest is the single-member district with plurality rule (SMDP). The candidate receiving the most votes in the district wins. Opponents say SMDP disenfranchises minorities. This is rhetoric.
First of all, the individuals composing “minorities” not only vote, but they also have the opportunity to lobby their district’s representative. Second, experience in the US indicates that minorities are not ignored by congressmen, especially in closely contested districts.
It can also be argued (as previously suggested) that SMDP requires elected officials to represent diverse opinions and interests, which can enlarge their intellectual horizons.
Even if it is true that SMDP disproportionately represents diverse groups, it is also true that PR with a low electoral threshold multiplies small parties, paralyzes governments, such that minorities themselves suffer as a consequence. And it should be reiterated that Israel’s system of fixed party lists enables parties to ignore their voters with impunity. Here is what I discovered in my study of more than 80 electoral systems, and the reader will pardon me if I let that study stand without retracing my steps since the data should suffice for the purpose of this article.
SMDP has been employed in no less than 22 countries, including Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. Of these 22 countries, 16 have smaller populations than Israel: Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Dominica, Gambia, Grenada, Jamaica, Micronesia, New Zealand, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Samoa, Trinidad & Tobago, and Zambia. I have capitalized those countries whose geographical area is smaller than Israel. Incidentally, the 50 American states employ SMDP, and their populations range from 582,658 (Wyoming) to 38 million (California).
Of course, single-member districts with plurality rule is not the last word. Some 54 countries employ other methods of representing constituents. Districts may have more than one representative, as in Australia; they may have run-off elections to obtain a majority candidate, as in France; and they may combine SMDP for part of the legislature and PR for the remainder, as in Germany.
Of the 54 countries just alluded to, 12 have smaller populations than Israel: Cape Verdi, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, Honduras, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, and Uruguay. Again, the geographical area of the countries here capitalized is smaller than Israel.
We see, therefore, that 28 countries have smaller populations than Israel, and of these, 18 are smaller in area. This should dispose of objections to multi-district elections on the basis of a country’s population or size. I might also add that many countries are as heterogeneous as Israel.
Of the many regional electoral systems which Israel might adopt for its betterment, two may be mentioned here: the Preferential Vote system used in Australia and Ireland, and Personalized PR used in Germany and Denmark (which systems avoid gerrymandering). For further details, see my book Jewish Statesmanship: Lest Israel Fall. ☼
 See Aili Piano and Arch Puddington, eds., Freedom in the World 2005 (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).
University Press of America (New York: 2002). See also Paul Eidelberg, An American Political Scientist in Israel (New York: Lexington Books, 2010), Ch. 10.
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