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Five elections in four years: Is Israel’s electoral system broken?

Eetta Prince-Gibson
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Published: 16 August 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

EETTA PRINCE-GIBSON: As election news builds, analysts blame individuals who want to hobble the government, rather than an underlying structural flaw, for Israel's democratic stalemate.

In a political version of the movie Groundhog Day, in November Israelis will go to the polls yet again, for the fifth time in four years.

Like the self-centered, hapless Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) in the movie, we are in an endless loop. Elections. Fail to form a stable government. Repeat. Until we get it right. Connors eventually got it right. But if the current political predictions are correct, Israeli voters aren't likely to get it right this time, either.

Yet, most experts insist that, despite its obvious faults, the electoral system is not failing and may, in fact, be the best system for Israel, even at this time. Or perhaps, some say, especially at this time.

"The system isn't the problem Israel is facing, and fixing it isn't the solution," says Dr Or Anabi, researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank in Jerusalem.

The consensus from political scientists is that the electoral system works, and is viable, but it is being held hostage by individuals intent on stopping the government from doing its job. In short, a temporary problem of governance rather than an underlying structural flaw.

This system suits Israel, because we are deeply diverse. Broad representation is less stable than a presidential system.

Israel's complex, nation-wide electoral system is proportional, which means that voters cast their ballots for a party, not a person. The percentage of votes that a party receives translates into the number of seats that that party will take in the 120-seat Knesset. To be part of the Knesset, each party must pass the threshold, that is, it must garner at least 3.25% of the votes cast.   

A majority of the Knesset is thus 61 seats. But in the country's history, no single party has ever won 61 seats. The head of the party with the most votes (usually, but not always) becomes the would-be prime minister and must try to form alliances with other parties in order to cobble together the sacred 61.

Usually, more than a dozen parties make it across the threshold into the Knesset; in the last elections, 13 parties made it in. The permutations for the creation of a coalition government are therefore almost infinite. Small parties become kingmakers and enjoy disproportionate power, leading to weeks of negotiations, horse-trading, back-room deals, and power-sharing promises that are seldom kept.

Netanyahu and Bennett in transition after the last election
Netanyahu and Bennett in transition after the last election

This time, former prime minister Naftali Bennett (whose party actually had the smallest number of seats in the Knesset – go figure) managed to do the arithmetic and put together a diverse coalition that agreed to focus on supposedly largely consensual domestic issues, like the pandemic, housing, and the economy, and avoid the  difficult ones, such as the Palestinian conflict, and state and religion. But that didn't lead to a stable government, either, and the government fell apart after just one year.

Gilad Greenwald, a professor at Bar Ilan University's School of Communication, says this singular focus on stability does not tell the whole story. "A democracy has to balance between stability and broad representation, and at times they contradict each other. Israel has historically favoured representation since its inception," he says.

Before the state was founded, Greenwald explains, the Zionist movement sought to convince groups that were hostile to Zionism, such as some of the ultra-Orthodox groups, to support the establishment of an independent Jewish state. To do so, the nascent state deliberately set a low electoral threshold, in order to encourage these groups to join the government coalitions and play an active role in the nation-building project. Stability was knowingly jeopardised in order to maintain national unity through representation.

It might have been a form of co-opting, but Greenwald maintains that this is still necessary in Israel today. "This system suits Israel, because we are deeply diverse. Every party attends to different aspects of society. Broad representation is less stable than a presidential system, such is the one in the United States, which is based on only two parties. But [the US] is not as democratic, since many voices are not heard or represented."

A democracy has to balance between stability and broad representation, and at times they contradict each other. Israel has historically favoured representation since its inception.

Despite its instability, he adds, this government managed to pass a budget for the first time in three and a half years and manage successive waves of the Covid pandemic, among its other achievements.

The problem, he maintains, is that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his support base, insist that he can, and should, run for office despite his ongoing trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. This has created an impasse between those who support him and those who insist that this is untenable and Netanyahu should be barred from running for office.

"Netanyahu has knowingly created a dichotomy in order to try to stay in power," Greenwald says. "And while the proportional parliamentary system serves diversity well, it is not suited to dichotomies like this. But this is a political problem, not an inherent flaw in the system."

Greenwald continues: "Our system deserves a good word, and is much more robust that it appears. It defended itself from attempts by Netanyahu to create questionable legislation that might have served his goals.  In a presidential system, which rests even more on personality, it might have been easier to reject the democratic will of the people. The investigations into the events of January 6 show us that former president Donald Trump may have come close to taking over the government."

Bennett with Mansour Abbas, who heled formed a fragile coalition
Bennett with Mansour Abbas, who heled formed a fragile coalition

Dr Eilon Schwartz, director of Shaharit, a think tank and leadership incubator that seeks to "nurture a new social partnership among all of Israel's communities," says that the dichotomy that Netanyahu has created rests on and exacerbates deep polarisation and lack of flexibility within society.

"Giving and taking, building alliances, crossing the aisle to reach out to your political opponent – these are the bread and butter of all democratic politics. Good politics are relational, based on members from opposing sides to work together for the good of the public. But in this Knesset, the opposition decided that it will do everything – including not supporting issues that its own constituency wanted – in order to derail the government.

This is a problem of governance, of the daily working of society, and not of the system. It's a structural problem in a given moment.

“But this is a problem of governance, of the daily working of society, and not of the system. It's a structural problem in a given moment.

"We still see some of this kind of relational politics," he continues, "especially around issues of gender equality, where women MKs are willing to cross party lines for a common good. But in Israel, and throughout the world, politics have become increasing symbolic and hostile.  We certainly see this in the United States Congress, too."

In the past, in an effort to bolster its governments' stability, Israel did try to change its system, through a hybrid experiment. In 1996, 1999, and 2001, voters voted for two ballots: a party ballot and a prime ministerial ballot. The experiment failed miserably. 

Instead of limiting the power of the smaller parties, it strengthened them. Without the incentive to vote for one of the major parties so that its leading MK could become prime minister, voters cast their votes for even smaller, fringe parties that expressed their ideological or sectoral preferences.

The experiment, which was the only one of its kind in the world, was cancelled after the government fell in 2001, after less than two years.

Over the years, in desperation, some politicians, such as Labour leader Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, have – perhaps only partly in jest – called for a change in the voters.

But that isn't likely, either.

According to Anabi, small, incremental electoral and constitutional reforms, such as amending the law that demands new elections when a budget fails to pass, or making any attempt to initiate early elections dependent on a two-thirds majority, would improve stability without sacrificing representation.

"But to implement these changes, we need a functioning government," he adds. 

Anabi concludes: "this ongoing crisis of stability will not come to an end until Israel's leaders put their political differences aside and choose stability and functional government rather than polarising themselves and the public over the decision to sit with or without Netanyahu. We must develop leaders who will be willing to make the compromises that are necessary for a functioning democracy.

How likely are we to get these good leaders? Anabi acknowledges that in Israel, and also throughout the world, the crisis of leadership is one of the most severe challenges that democratic governments face.

And so, until then, Israelis may continue to wonder if every day is a political Groundhog Day.


Israel’s Gantz Vows to Prevent Sixth Election as Polls Show No Clear Path to Government (Haaretz)

Ex-IDF chief Eisenkot, former Yamina minister Kahana join Gantz-led ‘National Unity’ (Times of Israel)

Netanyahu Loyalists Win Big in Likud Primary, Veteran Lawmakers Pushed Out (Haaretz)

Israel asks Russia to prevent interference in elections (Al-Monitor)

Image: Bibi Netanyahu and Yair Lapid (Avi Katz)

About the author

Eetta Prince-Gibson

Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, was previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.

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