Israel’s voting system is too fair
Israelis could benefit from voting like Scots or Londoners.
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Israel's general election, to be held on February 10, will not - by contrast with that of Britain - itself determine who forms the government. In Israel, no single party has ever come near to winning an overall majority. The government is formed after the results have been counted following complex negotiations between the parties.
This is because Israel, unlike Britain, elects its parliament by proportional representation (PR). Israel has perhaps the fairest electoral system in the world, since any party that secures over 1.5 per cent of the vote is guaranteed representation in the Knesset.
But PR means that, unless a party gains 50 per cent of the vote, it will not secure an overall majority. No government in Britain has secured 50 per cent of the vote since 1935. The British first-past-the-post system converts a minority of the vote into a majority of seats. In the 2005 election, Labour won just 36 per cent of the vote; but this gave it a comfortable overall majority of 66 seats in the House of Commons.
In Israel, unlike Britain, there are no geographical constituencies. Instead of voting for a constituency member, the voter places a slip of paper marked with the appropriate letter or letters symbolising the party of his or her choice in the ballot box. The seats are then distributed proportionally, and who actually sits in the Knesset is determined, not by the voter but by the party, following primary elections in which only party members can participate.
Israel adopted its pure system of PR for reasons which lie deep in the history of Zionism. Before the Jewish state came into existence, policy was determined by the Zionist Congress, and by the elected assemblies of the Yishuv, the Jewish Community of Mandatory Palestine. Since these were voluntary bodies, it was vital to choose an electoral system which allowed the widest possible representation of Jewish opinion.
Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, always wanted to replace PR with the British system. His Mapai or Labour party was by far the largest until 1977, and would have benefited from this system, just as Labour did in Britain in 2005. But, for this very reason, Ben-Gurion's coalition partners would not agree to reform, since they feared that it would turn Israel into a permanent one party state.
In 1977, however, the party configuration changed. Labour lost its dominance. Since then, there has been a highly competitive battle between two major blocs - Labour and Likud - joined, in 2006, by Tzipi Livni's Kadima party. Since these parties have roughly equal strength, the smaller parties - particularly the religious parties - have gained considerable blackmail potential. In 1992, direct election of the Prime Minister was introduced, in the hope that it might lead to majority government. Instead, the Knesset became even more fragmented, and the experiment was abandoned in 1999.
Most Israelis favour electoral reform. But the British system would probably not work in Israel. It works best when there are only two major parties, as in Britain in 1951, when as many as 97 per cent of those voting supported the Conservatives or Labour. With three major parties, however, as in Israel, the relationship between seats and votes becomes highly unpredictable under an electoral system, like the British, designed for just two major parties. Moreover, Israeli society is highly segmented, divided not so much by social class, as by religious observance and ethnicity. Nearly all the parties securing representation in the Knesset do stand for genuine interests, whether ethnic, religious or socioeconomic. If any major interests felt unrepresented, they would feel alienated from Israeli society.
Reform, therefore, should retain the principle of proportional representation, but make it more difficult for very small parties to gain representation by raising the threshold from 1.5 per cent to, say, 5 per cent. There should also be a constituency system so as to secure a closer relationship between members of the Knesset and the voters. These reforms would make the Israeli system more like that used for elections to the Greater London Assembly or the Scottish Parliament.
But such reforms would not really give an Israeli government the authority to make the tough decisions necessary for peace. Perhaps, indeed, a peace agreement, if it is to secure legitimacy, needs wider support than can be given by the Knesset alone. It might need endorsement by the people, especially if the settlers on the West Bank were to resist it.
In the 1960s, President de Gaulle of France held referendums on self-determination in Algeria so as to isolate extremists on the far right. So also, an Israeli government, once it has negotiated peace with the Palestinians, might need to hold Israel's first national referendum to give its decisions legitimacy.
Israel certainly needs electoral reform. But electoral reform is far from being a cure-all. It can make only a modest contribution to solving Israel's problems. PR is a transparent electoral system. The outcome is a reflection of Israeli society. If one does not like the result, it is pointless to blame the mirror.
Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at Oxford University, and recipient of the 2008 Sir Isaiah Berlin Award by the Political Studies Association for Lifetime Contribution to Political Studies