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

Electoral Reform for Israel:
A Realistic Proposal

Daniel J. Elazar

Any change in a state's electoral system clearly represents a fundamental change in its constitution, since it alters the very basis of political representation -- one of the major elements, if not the very essence of democratic government. Consequently, electoral changes are among the hardest to effect. If such a change is to be effectuated, it must be made in a way that is most harmonious with the overall political style of the state in order to be as acceptable as possible to the broadest public, so as to meet the demands of public consensus.

Any way out of this apparent impasse must take into consideration the existence of 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 closer relations between the voters and their representatives; broader representation of the different interest, ethnic, and geographic groups that make up Israel's society; and greater independence from their party hierarchies for Knesset members.

An electoral system can be devised that meets all the above requirements. If Israel were to be divided into a small number of large multiple-member districts, constructed along fixed and rational geographic lines to be meaningful entities, with the number of members from each district apportioned regularly and impartially on the basis of its population, it would be possible to combine the best features of both the present system and the proposed ones for the good of the state and even the long-range good of the existing political system.

The details of this proposal are simple. Israel can easily be divided into twelve districts, based on the country's present planning and administrative subdivisions. Those twelve districts will have permanent boundaries and each will be apportioned a specific number of Knesset seats based on its share of Israel's total population.

A ready-made basis for such a division presently exists. Pre-1967 Israel is presently divided into fourteen planning and administrative subdistricts as shown on the map, which, with two minor changes, would meet the requirements for permanent electoral districts. These subdistricts are not 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. While this system is based on the present boundaries and excludes all the administered territories, it would be easy to make any electoral adjustments based on territorial changes in the future or on present settlements beyond the green line. The Golan, for example, could be added to the Naftali district; settlements in the Shomron and the northern Jordan Valley could be attached to the Yizrael or Central districts. The settlements in the Etzion bloc, Hebron, and the Dead Sea area could be attached to the Jerusalem or the Beersheba districts; the Gaza settlements could be attached to the Ashkelon district.

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 Safad and Kinneret subdistricts and the Ramle and Rehovot subdistricts. 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. 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 smaller parties in a few centers where they would compete with the larger parties on equal terms without putting the latter at a permanent disadvantage.

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 number of voters per seat is 22,000 a district with a population of 150,000 would be allocated seven seats. Periodically -- every ten years is the usual interval -- the seats would automatically be reapportioned among the districts by a nonpartisan commission on the basis of population changes.

Under the new system, 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 may nominate candidates for any and all of the seats in each district, subject to the national 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 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. It even may 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.

While the full consequences of such a change in the state's electoral system can only be a matter of conjecture, it is clear that the proposal system would eliminate the debilitating consequences of system of proportional representation among which are the extreme multiplicity of parties; the virtual necessity for narrowly based coalition governments; the strengthening of the party bureaucracy at the expense of the party activists 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.

There would be created an electoral system that will offer the voters a choice of both candidates and parties (rather than just a choice of party lists) in Knesset elections. Knesset members would be elected on the basis of local as well as country wide attachments thereby increasing the voice of the citizen in state affairs and better reflecting the spread of social and economic interests in the country. This, in turn, is likely to encourage the election of capable people regardless of their party standing since they will be able to challenge the party organizations within their localities. Finally, such a system could be used to foster healthy regionalism and local political activity since the electoral districts could also be used as the basis for locally concerned democratic decentralization of decision-making.

Under the electoral system proposed here, it should be possible to eliminate the deficiencies of the present system and institute an arrangement which comes closer to the model of the world's most stable and successful democracies. Yet, by providing a means for the present party system to be maintained within the framework of districts already the repositories of important governmental functions and that are also tied to traditional and geographically meaningful divisions, the system would embody characteristics uniquely Israeli.

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