Routinely berated for producing weak governments beholden to minorities, Israel’s electoral system actually gives all a voice and keeps all groups on the inside. We should exercise extreme caution in changing it.
The Israeli electoral system has never wanted for critics or well-intentioned reformers, yet its basic contours have remained remarkably unchanged since the first general election in 1949. Unchanged and unloved, it is also vastly underappreciated. Its quirks and supposed deficiencies have – by historical accident rather than by design – made an enormous contribution to Israeli political stability and to the normalisation of democracy in a society that by any comparative reckoning should never have had it so good.
Naysayers, particularly from the English-speaking world, have accused Israel’s proportional representation system of breeding constant instability and empowering fringe elements and extremists, while an undercurrent of domestic discourse pines for ‘strong leadership’ that is not always looking over its shoulder to please coalition partners.
It is a matter of nearly universal consensus among critics that the electoral threshold for the Knesset is simply too low. It stands today at two percent, having been raised twice already (from one percent and one and a half percent). If we were to judge by the indignation this supposedly low threshold inspires, we might expect to see a Knesset with lots of tiny parties just squeaking past the two percent with only two seats. But this Knesset has none. The two smallest parties to enter the Seventeenth Knesset in 2009 both had three seats, and the same was true in the Eighteenth. Not a single party in either Knesset was at the threshold of two seats, and, for that matter, no parties missed entering the Knesset for having fallen just below the threshold either. The threshold simply wasn’t relevant. Nor is Israel’s low threshold particularly unique. A threshold of four percent or five percent is common in many democracies, but of those, some, like Poland and Romania, make exceptions for national-ethnic minorities, and others, like Germany or New Zealand, do not apply the threshold to parties that win direct mandates in regional districts. Mature democracies in Finland and the Netherlands, among others, do just fine with no threshold. Only Turkey imposes a high ten percent threshold.
To be sure, there are quite a few parties in the Knesset, though the number is far from extraordinary when compared to some European parliaments. Even the UK, the most radically anti-proportional parliament in Europe, returned ten parties after the most recent general election (and, lest anyone think that was a fluke, eleven in the one before that). In Israel, the number of parties returned at each recent election has held steady at around twelve, and this number, believe it or not, is not a bad reflection of the existing political cleavages in Israel’s very diverse and deeply divided political society. Israel’s real ‘problem’ is not the proliferation of tiny parties but the growth of medium-sized parties and, in the last two decades, the decline of large ones. In all of Israel’s first thirteen general elections (out of eighteen so far), at least one party was returned to Parliament with 40 or more seats (out of 120). In the Seventh and Eighth Knessets, one party even exceeded 50, and in the Tenth and Eleventh, two parties topped 40. Since 1996, no party has come even close, and three of the last four Knessets have been elected without any party even crossing 30 seats. Is this because of creeping inroads by small parties screeching across a low threshold? Not at all. In fact, at the peak performance of the two large parties in the 1980s, there were more parties in the Knesset than today (15 rather than 12).
Election results for the Knesset have evolved in three distinct phases. The first eight elections (1949-1973) returned Knessets with one large party and its satellites and opponents. The next five (1977-1992) gave us two large parties and ten or more small ones. And the most recent five (1996-2009) have left us with a smattering of medium-sized parties. The action, as it were, has simply not been anywhere near the threshold.
The existing parties more or less faithfully represent the ethnic, religious and ideological cleavages in Israeli politics. Raising the threshold much higher than it is today would not push out the cranks. It will, rather, leave entire constituencies unrepresented by their own parties, with no real leverage over larger parties to broaden their bases either. Do we really want to see a consolidated Arab bloc pandering only to its Islamist element? A joint ultra-Orthodox list with no issue binding it together but draft-dodging and welfare entitlement? These would be the comparatively optimistic scenarios with a higher threshold. The more likely outcome would be a complete exit from democratic politics by precisely those groups whose connection to the state’s ‘rules of the game’ is already tenuous at best.
The kinds of parties ordinarily believed to be swatted away by higher thresholds exist more in people’s imaginations or exaggerated memories than in actual Knessets of recent years. Single-issue parties rarely cross the threshold and never survive more than one Knesset anyway. The vanity list, a faction built around a notable figure and one or two hangers-on, has largely disappeared from the Israeli electoral scene. These parties were almost always led by prickly former generals who were either frustrated and bewildered by their less than meteoric rise to the top of an established party, or who left an established party in a huff over some principle which no one can remember a week or two after the split. They have faded from the scene as the gloss of generals has faded from Israeli political consciousness, and although the next parliamentary election may see a new vanity list cross the threshold under Ehud Barak, I would not place any money on that outcome. The Israeli public of 2013 is too mature for this kind of thing, and Barak’s ambitions are too large for mere vanity lists.
Of course, the scourge of tiny parties is not the only thing critics of Israel’s proportional representation find fault with. We are commonly told that it is nearly impossible to put together a coherent government here, though in fact every election – even the most seemingly indecisive ones (1984, 2009) – have led to a government being formed within the allotted 45 days. This is in stark contrast to situations that routinely emerge in Belgium where months pass between an election and a coalition. Even Britain had to go to the polls twice in 1974 to get a manageable governing majority.
Minority governments have also been a rarity in Israel, though they are currently in power in both Denmark and the Netherlands. The longest-lived minority coalition, from 1993 to 1996, rested on the anomaly of Arab parties remaining outside a government they supported. It is safe to assume that if there is ever another left-wing majority in the Knesset, this anomaly will be a thing of the past.
If the threshold is not really ushering in tiny parties, governing coalitions are relatively easy to form, and minority governments are rare and not genuinely minorities anyway, then what is left on the charge sheet?
A common complaint is that elections are too frequent and parliaments rarely last their full terms. The latter is true of the Knesset, but it is equally true of nearly every parliament. In the Knesset’s first sixty years, there were exactly seventeen Parliaments, an average duration of three and a half years – not bad considering a full term is four years. Even this statistic leaves out the good part of the story, as it includes in it two very short-lived Knessets from the state’s early days. In the last fifty years, no Knesset has sat for less than three years.
But are not Israel’s governing coalitions unstable? Are not prime ministers always struggling to hold on to precarious majorities? The short answer is no. The long answer is no, too, actually. Again, it helps to separate out the first five Knessets – two of which lasted only two years, and one of which featured no fewer than four governing coalitions – from the twelve subsequent Knessets, each of which has served between three and four years and none of which had more than one reshuffle. In fact, even the numbers for the first five Knessets hide a certain stability – all were dominated by the same man, David Ben-Gurion, who was Prime Minister for the duration of all five, save for two years at the end of the Second Knesset and two years at the end of the Fifth.
Governments are unstable, we are told, and Prime Ministers are always struggling for survival rather than making long-term decisions. Perhaps they are not thinking for the long-term, but parliamentary survival cannot take all the blame. The total number of governments that have fallen by no-confidence votes in all of Israeli history is one (in 1990), and if it were zero, I would argue that that is a defect.
The Knesset is a noisy and chaotic place, and the noise and chaos of people who do not agree with me tends to be particularly annoying. To me. But that is the point, isn’t it? Even after 64 years of statehood, it remains the only forum in the entire country where Israelis of all kinds actually have to listen to each other. Even when the outcome of a decision is easily known in advance, it still must go through a trial by discussion according to formalistic procedures that gives it a status no other public decision has. No other Israeli institution does this – not the army, which does not draft Arabs or ultra-Orthodox, not the High Court and certainly not the media.