Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Israel: Constitution, Government and Politics

Electoral and Constitutional Reform for Israel

Daniel J. Elazar

"In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself." With these words in Federalist #51, James Madison points out the essential problem of constructing a proper constitution or frame of government. He continues: "A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."

Successful political systems from a democratic perspective are those in which the government has sufficient energy to govern, that is to say, to confront the tasks placed before it, and at the same time is sufficiently controlled to be responsible to the people. Madison again: "It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." Since this is not the case, every political society must find ways to both empower and limit its government.

That is the problem of electoral and constitutional reform in Israel today. On one hand we have what seems to be the most democratic possible electoral system. Any group that wins a touch more than a bare 1 percent of the popular vote in a Knesset election gains a seat in the Knesset and, under present conditions, a chance to enter the governing coalition and indeed the government itself under advantageous conditions. The end result of all this, however, is to frustrate both necessary dimensions of good government. The government that results must rest upon so delicately balanced a coalition that it cannot muster the energy necessary to govern effectively, while the electoral system is so party-based that the people feel unrepresented most of the time. Under such circumstances, electoral and constitutional reform become vitally necessary.

While Israel's predicament has its own special flavor, in fact, parliamentary government is in trouble all over the world. The Economist (27 August 1988) describes the situation in Britain: "Parliament, unlike the United States Congress, is not a true legislature. It is a small part of a legislative process dominated by ministers and officials... MPs are self-importance because they lack real importance; they look busy because they are not actually engaged in business." What is true in Great Britain, still a model democracy in many respects, is even more true in other countries, which is why there has been a steady movement away from parliamentary systems to others emphasizing the constitutional separation of executive and legislative powers.

Parliamentary systems developed out of the European experience with absolute monarch who had to be brought to heel and subordinated to the will of the people. Parliaments became the devices for doing that through the people's representatives elected at first to control the purse so that the monarch could not do what he or she pleased without some measure of popular consent. As time passed, Parliament extended its powers to the point where a committee of Parliament became His Majesty's Government headed by the king's first (or prime) minister. By the end of the modern epoch, the seventeenth century imbalance toward absolute monarchy had been transformed into an imbalance in the other direction. Kings, if they still occupied their thrones, had become figureheads, Parliament was supreme, and the government, its committee, controlled Parliament. That was because parliamentary institutions were built to check monarchy, not to check each other.

In the meantime, Montesquieu and the United States had demonstrated in theory and practice why democratic government, to be both energetic and democratic, required separation of powers with meaningful original authority lodged in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Like other countries in the world, Israel must learn that lesson and proceed accordingly.

Which Electoral System?

The Israeli political system may have finally reached the crisis that will bring about action to reform its electoral and governmental structure, long overdue changes that will enable those elected to govern to do so. Two kinds of changes are proposed. One, electoral reform, has two purposes. At its most effective, it would enable a single party to win a majority of seats in the Knesset to govern without a coalition. At the very least it should eliminate the multiplicity of very small parties, each of which is needed for coalition-building and hence can demand an outrageous price for its support.

It seems fairly well conceded by now that in the Israeli context no reasonable electoral reform can bring about a majority for a single political party. The divisions in Israeli society are too much like those of continental Europe to make possible a two-party system. In theory it would be possible to enable a single party to win a majority of the seats if the country were divided into 120 single-member districts, but at best it would inevitably be a minority government, something like the present British system where three or four competing parties insure that even the party that wins a majority of the seats barely exceeds 40 percent of the popular vote.

Moreover, because of the distribution of population in Israel, a pure single-member constituency system might give the balance of power to the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs, the two minority groups whose residential patterns would permit them to secure several Knesset seats even under that system should they choose to run their own candidates. Nevertheless, such a system has sufficient merit to deserve serious consideration since it would prevent the formation of small parties whose voters were spread throughout the country, not sufficiently concentrated in any particular geographic area. It could only succeed if the two major parties became broader coalitions that gave voice to those minority interests.

On the other hand, if the more modest goal of preventing the proliferation of small parties is sufficient, then it is sufficient to raise the minimum percentage needed to qualify for a seat and to change the method of aggregating votes. In a recent article, Matthew Soberg Shugart indicated how adopting the Imperiale system in place of the d'Hondt divisors would require only an increase of the threshhold to 2 percent to eliminate 5 of the parties that won seats in the last elections, giving the two large parties a total of 88 seats. While this would not solve the problem of coalition bargaining, it would at least reduce the ability of very small parties to blackmail the large ones. Moreover, as he shows, using a different system of divisors, the system would gain more stability than it would by raising the threshhold to 5 percent with the present system of divisors.

None of the other proposed electoral systems is likely to make a major difference. Instead each is likely to be more confusing to the general public. The system proposed by Professor Uriel Reichman's group which would involve electing half the Knesset from districts and half by proportional representation with a very complicated formula to determine which party would be entitled to form the government is not likely to bring either the maximum or the minimum result, and with a Knesset whose size would change from election to election, confuse the general public beyond acceptable limits. In a political system known for its penchant for manipulation, this would offer even greater opportunities for manipulation.

The same problem of who would form a government would affect all mixed systems, which is why in the rest of the world mixed systems of the kind proposed here are basically confined to legislatures with two houses, or the mixture is not based upon different electoral systems for different segments of one house but an arrangement whereby all seats are chosen through the same mixture. Thus it is possible to have multiple-member districts in which the selection in each district is through proportional representation. Such a system should be seriously considered for Israel.

To the extent that one of the goals of electoral reform is to secure representation for territorially-based interests, the division of the country into a permanent number of districts, say 12, among which the 120 Knesset seats are apportioned on a population basis after each census, offers serious possibilities. Under such a system the voters would then cast their ballots either for a straight party ticket or for individual candidates selected from different party lists submitted in that district. Those that received the highest number of votes would be elected. Thus if a district had eight seats, the eight highest vote-getters would be elected regardless of party. A straight party ticket in that case would count as a vote for each candidate. This system would not only have the advantage of giving representation to territorial as well as sectoral interests, but would also further open up the political parties to new leadership because there would be a high incentive for each party to run strong candidates to attract the floating vote.

There are two possible ways to divide the seats under this plan. One would be to take the current administrative subdistricts of the Ministry of Interior which reflect the permanent geographic divisions of the country and to apportion the seats among them. Another would be to divide the country into twelve equal districts which, while they may not remain equal in the future, would be within a relatively close range. In my opinion, the first system would be the fairest. It would assure representation to the peripheral regions of the country and at the same time by having relatively large districts in the areas around the three major cities offer the possibility for some ideological diversity to be expressed as well.

A Presidential System?

All told, no electoral system can bring stability where ideological fragmentation is strong. While Israel certainly does not need as many parties as it now has to reflect ideological differences, there are seven long-term blocs in this country that must be represented in some way: the two centrist blocs, one center-left and one center-right; a Zionist-left bloc; a non-Zionist-left bloc, mostly Arab; a Zionist-right bloc; and religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox blocs. Perhaps all of these blocs can be forced into the Sodomian bed of a two-party system but it is not likely. This means that the electoral system can be redesigned to decrease instability but not to provide stability in and of itself. For that, broader constitutional reform is needed.

One idea that has been proposed is the direct election of the head of government. The proposal presently on the table is somewhat confused since it would keep a separate president as head of state, presumably still elected by the Knesset, while there would be a head of government elected by the people. Moreover, it would be a mistake to simply provide for the election of the head of government without redesigning the political system so that it would be based upon checks and balances between the legislative and the executive branches. It is just as necessary to prevent executive dictatorship, as it is to prevent legislative paralysis.

In this regard it would be better to have a directly-elected president as chief executive who would appoint a cabinet not dependent upon the confidence of the Knesset, which in turn would be given more extensive powers to initiate legislation, over the budget and a stronger committee system. This is similar to the American model, sometimes erroneously called the presidential system but in actually a system of checks and balances. It would provide the stability of a single, popularly-elected executive serving for a fixed term with the possibility of a strong legislative counterbalance.

The French have developed a presidential system in the constitution of the Fifth Republic. There the president is elected for an extended term with exceptional powers, balanced to some extent by a legislature with a government and prime minister. As we have seen, this can lead to a situation of "cohabitation" whereby the president is of one party and the prime minister of another, which would not solve Israel's basic problem.

There are many drawbacks to a system in which the president is directly elected. If the president is not sufficiently limited, he gains far too much power for a democratic polity. If constitutional checks and balances are instituted, other kinds of stalemates can develop as the American experience shows. Nevertheless, on balance it seems that a directly-elected president is the best possible solution for Israel's problems. With a proper system, all three goals of electoral and constitutional reform, more decisive government, less distortion in the allocation of power between central and peripheral groups in the political system, and better representation for the citizenry can be attained through a checks and balances system.

We need to pursue this reform agenda with our eyes open. It will not solve all problems. Indeed it will create some new ones, but at least they will be problems that will not prevent the concentration of the requisite energy in the Israeli government to undertake the tasks it faces in this respect. The government will be able to govern, yet also will be under control.

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