Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Israel: Constitution, Government and Politics

Electoral Reform for Israel

Daniel J. Elazar

The urgent need for electoral reform of Israel's parliamentary system is widely, if not universally, recognized. But electoral reform can be enacted only by a Knesset made up of parties and individuals whose political life may be threatened by that reform. Political suicide has never been popular -- certainly not in Israel.

There is only one way to bring about electoral reform in Israel -- by a democratic "citizens revolt" in the form of a massive campaign of public mobilization.

What is needed is a half million to a million signatures on a petition that would demand a change in the electoral system. This should be presented to the Knesset by 50,000 citizens marching in Jerusalem. That is the only way to effect a break-down of the present resistance to electoral reform on the part of the powers that be.

The process of obtaining that number of signatures would in itself involve a major public effort, with all that this entails in the way of public education accompanying it. But if such an effort can be mounted, it would have an excellent chance of success. Although the Israeli establishment appears to be very conservative, in every case where there has been a massive public outpouring, the establishment and the government have responded rapidly to the pressure. Look at the response in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War or the aftermath of the massacres in Beirut, not to speak of a number of less prominent situations.

After the Yom Kippur War one lone man, Moti Ashkenazi, a major in the reserves who had been caught with the rest of his Jerusalem brigade in the bunkers along the Canal and who fought in the only bunker to avoid capture by the Egyptians, mounted a one-man protest calling for Golda Meir's government to resign by standing in front of the Knesset with a placard. Within no time he was joined by others until a major sit-in was underway, leading to the appointment of the Agranat Commission to investigate why Israel had been surprised and, following the Commission's report, the resignation of the Meir government.

In September, 1982, after the Lebanese Christian militia massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps outside Beirut, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin refused to appoint an external committee of inquiry to determine whether the Israel Defense Forces had enabled the massacre to take place, the Israeli public protested massively, culminating in a demonstration of several hundred thousand people in Tel Aviv. Within a week, Begin reversed himself, the Kahan Commission was appointed and its report, issued five months later, while exonerating Israel of any direct responsibility led to serious punishments for those whose negligence had allowed the Lebanese Christians to do their deed.

What is needed to start and to spark the effort is a public figure who could take the lead and an organization to provide him with proper support and funding.

Both are now available.

Previous efforts at electoral reform have been essentially stalemated because the proposed reforms conflict with basically immovable interests of long standing. The small parties in the Knesset are properly afraid that any serious electoral reform will prevent them from obtaining Knesset seats in future elections. The two large parties, Labor and the Likud, do not want to antagonize the small parties who are their potential coalition partners by advocating electoral reform. Even more important, they recognize that serious electoral reform will lead to changes within the party structure, thereby weakening the present party establishments and their ability to control nominations to the Knesset and the party machinery.

The Israeli public overwhelmingly supports electoral reform in the polls, but until now the issue has not been sufficiently important to them to make a real effort to bring about change.

Under the present electoral system, voters cast their ballots for specific political parties rather than for individual candidates. Each party submits a list of its candidates for the Knesset in rank order. After the votes are counted, each party received the number of seats to which its percentage of the vote entitles it. Thus if a part wins 20 percent of the votes, it will get 24 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset, and the first 24 names on its list will become Knesset members. If its gets 40 percent of the votes, it will receive 48 seats in the same manner.

The only departures from this pure proportional representation system are that a party must receive a minimum of slightly over 1 percent of the votes to qualify for a seat and it is possible for parties to enter into agreements to pool extra fractions of percentages for the advantage of one or the other. If a vacancy occurs during the life of a sitting Knesset, then the next person on the list of the party involved automatically takes his or her seat in Israel's parliament. This means that party leadership has great power in its ability to determine who is included on its list and in what place.

Among the debilitating consequences of this system of proportional representation are the extreme multiplicity of parties; the strengthening of the party bureaucracy at the expense of the government and the voters; the unhealthy deepening of political divisions in the country as a whole; and the increasing sense of political alienation that envelops many Israelis.

Thus in the elections for the present Knesset, 15 parties or party blocs qualified for seats. In the case of most of them, their Knesset lists were chosen by a narrow group of party leaders. The two major parties, even balanced as they were in the number of seats each obtained, had to compete for the support of the minuscule parties with one to six seats to try to form a governing coalition, and in the end failed to do so, leading to the establishment of the present national unity government in which both major parties plus many of the smaller parties are represented, leaving in opposition only the extreme left and extreme right in the Israeli spectrum.

Perhaps most devastating is that central control over the nominations process has led to an increasing mediocritization of Israeli politics. Party business is conducted so that, with rare exceptions, only professional politicians -- people who are prepared to spend all their time in partisan political activity -- can gain enough seniority and recognition to be nominated to high office. Citizen involvement in politics is minimal under such a system, while the number of good people willing to kowtow to the party leadership for a sufficiently lengthy period of time to rise in the ranks is quite limited.

The results nationally stand in stark contrast to what happens in local politics where the direct election of mayors, introduced in 1978, has led to a flowering of political talent as interested people find it easier to run for office on the basis of their personal talents.

Take, for example, Moshe Katzav, who came into public view as the very successful mayor of Kiryat Malachi, a stagnant development town in the south until he became mayor and led its revitalization, and who is today Minister of Social Welfare, or Meir Shitrit, who transformed another development town, Yavne, into a garden suburb, was subsequently elected to the Knesset and is now chairman of the Prime Minister's Council for Social Planning. Both Katzav and Shitrit are members of Herut and leading lights in the Likud. Mayors like Katzav and Shitrit, of the Labor Party's Jacques Amir from Dimona, have made their way into the Knesset without waiting in line because of their reputations they have gained as a result of their local successes.

Eli Dayan, the highly visible mayor of Ashkelon, who satisfies not only a Sephardic constituency but the highly demanding South African Jewish community in that city, is a member of the Labor Party. In the north, Yigal Bibi of the National Religious Party, who was elected mayor of Tiberias, a town that has traditionally voted Labor and would never have elected an NRP majority to the town council, on the basis of his personal dynamism. In middle class suburbs such as Ramat Hasharon and Kfar Shmaryahu, on the other hand, independent local candidates, not affiliated with any of the national parties, have achieved similar results to bring a kind of non-partisan "good government approach to municipal affairs that has also attracted countrywide attention.

The present party system actually antedates the state. It was developed to meet the needs of those pioneering the resettlement of the land, as those needs were perceived by the settlers from Eastern and Central Europe. As vehicles for pioneering before the existence of a Jewish government, the individual parties -- particularly the labor and religious parties which embraced strong doctrinal positions -- developed educational, welfare, and social service institutions of their own that went far beyond the normal political purposes of party organizations in other countries.

After the establishment of the state in 1948, the new government gave active assistance to these party institutions in order to facilitate the development of the country and the absorption of the mass of new immigrants.

Thus the parties consolidated their position in Israel's political system in ways that transcend the usual political concerns of access and representation. They became virtually self-contained provinces within the state. This, in turn, strengthened the vested interests opposed to electoral reform, since any threat to the existence of a particular party could undercut the life structure of many people.

It is hard for outsiders to visualize the degree to which the parties or ideological camps (groups of parties sharing an overall ideology such as Labor's socialism, Likud's populist nationalism, or the religious parties traditional religion) dominated the lives of ordinary Israelis, something which Israelis took for granted. In their heyday before the state, everything from sports clubs to paramilitary forces, from schools to banks, was organized by party or camp. While many of these camps were subsequently nationalized when the state was established, many others still remain in party hands. For example...

All this helped create a very centralized party system with considerable power in the hands of the party leadership and bureaucracies through their control not only of normal electoral politics, but also of economic opportunity for party members.

Even as the parties were being consolidated within the framework of the state, however, the change in Israel's population introduced large numbers of people -- either immigrants or members of a new native-born generation -- who had no ideological stake in any particular party and did not particularly care to be independent upon the parties for services they consider to be rightfully the province of government. Almost everyone born since the establishment of the state falls into this category. They have grown up with the state as a reality and forty years after the state's founding they represent a decisive majority of the population. It is they who can provide a base of support for electoral reform. At the present moment, this provides only limited support because it is unorganized and must face the united opposition of those who actually hold political power in the country. But the democratic "citizen revolt" I envisage can change all this.

While David Ben-Gurion advocated electoral reform back in the 1950s and even tried to build a new party, Rafi, around that issue, among others, in the 1960s after he left Mapai, efforts to achieve change until recently were mostly confined to a few individuals or small groups. Gad Yacobi, a veteran Labor Knesset member and frequent minister in the governments of Israel, has been a loyal supporter of electoral reform over the years. In the 1970s, the Democratic Movement for Change, a portion of which survives in the Shinui party, made electoral reform a major issue, but failed to move matters along before the party broke apart over other issues associated with the first Begin government. Today Knesset members Professor Amnon Rubinstein and Mordechai Virschubsky of that party remain advocates of district elections.

Outside of the Knesset, lobbying for electoral reform has primarily been the province of olim from the English-speaking countries whose experience in the lands of their origin has made them strong supporters of both personal and district elections. Groups such as the Committee of Concerned Citizens, originally chaired by Haim Herzog before he became Israel's president, and the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, have been active in seeking to mobilize public support for the change. All of these have been too few and far between to overcome the resistance of the two major parties who pay lip service to electoral reform in their platforms, but do nothing to advance it.

Now, however, a now broad-based coalition of concerned citizens is in the process of formation, under the umbrella organization known as Aviv, literally "spring," but also a Hebrew acronym for Agudah Lebechirot Yeshirot BeYisrael. Aviv's leaders include public figures like MK Meir Shitrit, whom we met earlier, leaders of the business community such as Al Schwimmer, one of the founders of the Israeli Air Force and former head of the Israel Aircraft Industries, and David Kulitz, one of the wunderkind Israeli entrepreneurs and first chairman of the Israeli Forum. They are committed to raising a war chest of $1 million from Israelis and concerned Jews abroad, particularly in the United States, who want to advance the cause.

There are many kinds of electoral reform that this "citizens' revolt" could support. But electoral reform that has any chance of being enacted must take into account the present party system and the reluctance of any of the present parties to accept any electoral arrangement that does not give at least those parties in the coalition some hope of survival. At the same time, any electoral reform, to be worth the effort, must meet the demands of the "non-party" population which is increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo, by providing for close relations between the voters and their representatives; broader representation of the different interest, ethnic, and the geographic groups that make up Israel's society; and greater independence for their party hierarchies for Knesset members.

Various proposals for change have been advanced, ranging from continuing the present parliamentary system, with a certain percentage of the Knesset's 120 seats elected from districts and the remainder elected at large, to a complete constitutional change instituting presidential government.

The simplest change in the electoral system would be to retain proportional representation as at present, but to raise the minimum percentage needed to win a seat. Today slightly over one percent of the total vote will gain a seat in the Knesset. That is how Meir Kahane was elected. Were that threshold to be raised to a three percent minimum, all the present fly-by-night splinter parties established to foster the ambitions of some individual would be eliminated while preserving those parties -- large, medium-sized and small -- that have demonstrated staying power on the political scene over the years and thus arguably deserve representation. Such a change would alter the present system, which rewards splintering by encouraging leaders of factions within existing parties to set up their own parties prior to each election and thereby improve their chances of gaining election to the Knesset.

Another possibility, which I prefer, is what is called a fixed multi-member district system. Under this system, the country would be divided into a fixed number of large districts, say 8 or 12, based on permanent regional divisions, and the 120 Knesset seats would be apportioned among them periodically on the basis of population. Within each district as many parties as wished could submit lists, but voters could vote either for party lists or for individual candidates up to the total number of seats allotted to that district. This would reduce the number of parties able to compete in the election, allow voter choice of individual candidates and not simply party lists, thereby encouraging the parties to nominate attractive candidates in every district. At the same time this would allow Israel's permanent groupings an opportunity to be represented in the Knesset as at present. By permanent groupings I mean those parties or combinations of parties whose continued existence from election to election because of some individual's ambition or in pursuit of an electoral will-of-the-wisp that never emerges with even the minimal one percent of the vote needed to obtain a seat. Such a system would assure appropriate regional representation in the Knesset, something that now is lacking, without overemphasizing localism. So, for example, the eastern and Western Galilee, the south and the Negev are badly underrepreseted in the Knesset, while Tel Aviv and its surrounding area and the Jezreel Valley kibbutzim are overrepresented. A permanent distribution of seats among fixed regions would, on one hand, guarantee those regions representation, and, on the other, make certain that the representation did not exceed what they were due, given their share of the country's population. Voting for those representatives on a regions basis would strengthen regional consciousness and foster intra-regional cooperation in other areas because the Knesset members would have an interest in working together, while at the same time giving every Knesset member a broad enough base so that the kind of parochialism sometimes associated with individual member constituencies would be prevented.

A ready-made basis for such a division presently exists. Israel's territory within its pre-1967 borders (plus east Jerusalem) is presently divided into fourteen administrative subdistricts which would meet the requirements for permanent electoral districts.* These subdistricts are now used for the administration of elections. Since they follow the country's regional geographic divisions they can properly serve as the basis for a new electoral system. Since their boundaries are permanently fixed, they obviate the necessity for politically painful decisions in drawing district lines.

Each of the electoral districts would be allocated its share of Knesset seats in proportion to its percentage of the country's total population. In order to give each district at least four seats, the fourteen planning subdistricts would be reduced to twelve by combining the Safed and Kinneret subdistricts and the Ramle and Rehovot subdistricts. (See map.) Under this arrangement, each district would be sufficiently large in population and varied in interests to offer several parties a fair chance to elect representatives to the Knesset. At the same time, each district will be sufficiently distinct as a regional entity to encourage its residents to develop a long range community of interest internally and even allow the territorially-based minorities such as the Arabs, the agricultural settlements, and the religious population to gain representation in an appropriate way. Each of the three major cities with its environs would constitute a separate district as they already do for governmental and planning purposes, which would tend to concentrate the "independents" in a few centers where they could compete with the parties on equal terms without putting the latter at a permanent disadvantage.

The apportionment of seats by district would be done by determining how many people each Knesset seat represents, relative to the total population of the country, and comparing that figure with the total population of each district. After allocating seats to the districts in this manner, the remaining seats would be allocated on the basis of major fractions of the required figure, in descending order. Thus, if the average population per seat is 27,000, a district with a population of 260,000 would initially be allocated nine seats and would likely receive a tenth on the basis of the 17/27 of the basic figure remaining unprovided for. Periodically -- every ten years is the usual interval -- the seats would automatically be reapportioned among the districts by a non-partisan commission on the basis of population changes.

As a general rule, all candidates would be elected at large within each district. This means that every voter will be able to vote for as many candidates as the number of seats allocated to his district. Any party many nominate candidates for any and all of the seats in each district, as provided by the state election laws. Candidates would carry party designations on the ballot and would be listed under party columns. Voters will be able to vote for individual candidates or for a straight party ticket. The parties will thus be able to attract the voters as before but the burden of attracting new votes will be placed on the candidates they choose rather than on the ideologies they espouse. the parties will be able to attract voters by nominating exceptionally good candidates who could pull votes away from the larger parties in the districts where the candidate's parties, as such, have little support, or by convincing the voters in districts where they have abundant support to vote a straight ticket for them. At the same time it could be possible for one party to elect a majority and be able to form a stable government by careful construction of tickets in the various districts.

There are many other reforms that have been proposed, including a complete change in the structure of the Israeli political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one, whereby a chief executive or president would be directly elected by the voters independently of the Knesset and would relate to the Knesset on a separation-of-power basis similar to that in the United States.

What is necessary at this point is not to decide on the specific system but to mobilize the public so that change may be effectuated. It is clear, however, that any proper change would have to eliminate exclusive reliance on proportional representation. And, the time for action is now!

While electoral reform is no panacea, it is vitally necessary for Israel at this time because it would open up the system's badly needed new blood.


* While this system is based on the 1967 boundaries and excludes all the administered territories, it would be easy to make any electoral adjustments based on territorial changes in the future on present settlements beyond the green line. The Golan, for example, would be added to the Naftali district; settlements in the northern Jordan Valley could be attached to the Yizrael district. The settlements in the Etzion bloc, Hebron, and the Dead Sea area could be attached to the Jerusalem or the Beersheba districts; the Sinai settlements could be attached to the Ashkelon district.

Elazar Papers Index / JCPA Home Page / Top of Page