By Daniel J. Samet
On April 9, Israeli voters will head to the polls to select the 21st Knesset. This campaign, as in past years, features many parties vying for 120 seats — a whopping 12 parliamentary groups are currently represented in the Knesset.
Polling indicates that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party will win between 25 and 29 seats, well below the 61 needed for a parliamentary majority. The Israel Resilience Party, a new faction led by ex-general Benny Gantz, should pose a strong center-left challenge to Likud, whereas the country’s once-formidable Labor Party may pick up only seven or eight seats.
Following the elections, Israel will find itself in a familiar quagmire: The prime minister will cobble together disparate parties in a ruling coalition that shares few legislative priorities.
Israel’s volatile political scene results from a low electoral threshold. Parties need to take only 3.25 percent of the vote to return a member of the Knesset (MK). Such a system ensures the gamut of political parties will be represented. Israel is a divided nation, and the electoral system worsens its divisions.
A raise in the minimum threshold would force parties to appeal to large swaths of the country, not just small voting blocs. If Israel is to eliminate its political dysfunction and elect working governments, electoral reform is sorely needed.
In comparison to other parliamentary democracies, Israeli politics is tremendously volatile. The Jewish State has endured more than 30 coalition governments since 1948, many of which united ideologically opposed factions. The House of Commons, in contrast, has seen only a handful of coalitions throughout the United Kingdom’s long history.
Likud, currently the most represented party in the Knesset, has just 30 seats. To form the current government, Netanyahu has culled a razor-thin 61-seat majority that includes centrist, right-wing, National Religious, Ashkenazi Haredi and Sephardic Haredi parties in addition to his secular conservative Likud. Netanyahu’s government has seen vicious infighting on everything from the ceasefire with Hamas, which compelled the hawkish Avigdor Liberman to remove his Jewish Home party from the coalition, to Haredi conscription.
Under the current system, small parties can make the survival of a ruling coalition conditional on its promotion of niche interests that detract from the greater national agenda. It is almost impossible to govern effectively in arrangements like this.
Electoral reform has enjoyed popular backing in the past.
In 2014, the Knesset raised the minimum threshold from 2 percent to 3.25 percent. Prior to 1992, it was only 1 percent. Though detractors claimed that the increase targeted Arab and Haredi blocs, they were incorrect in arguing that the change imperiled representative democracy. Many parliaments in Europe have thresholds, and few would claim these countries are undemocratic. Israel’s low threshold may have functioned well in the country’s nascent years, but it has long outlasted its expiration date.
There is widespread agreement that reform is necessary, yet change does not transpire. Part of the problem is that any revision to Israel’s Basic Laws, the country’s effective constitution, requires a supermajority vote in the Knesset. The prospect of increasing the electoral threshold and potentially liming their power is a tough sell for smaller parties.
Despite brushback from some corners, MKs should once again raise the threshold in the interest of a functional state as they did five years ago. A higher threshold would strengthen big-tent parties, reduce political fragmentation and deliver more effective governments. However, recent reports suggest the opposite may occur — the government is considering lowering the threshold to ensure the election of MKs from small right-wing parties. So much for a way forward.
Another route of reform is to implement a district-based system. Israel has no electoral districts, meaning voters select parties based on national considerations.
The Israeli system is unlike that of the United Kingdom, for instance, where candidates run in specific districts and are directly accountable to the constituents they represent. Advocates say that fixed-boundary constituencies would reduce the influence of the party establishment while favoring greater local representation. Right now, voters in Herzliya receive the same ballots as those in Mea Shearim. A district-based system would probably bolster parties that have broad appeal.
It’s true that raising the electoral threshold or moving to a constituency system would curb the power of certain blocs. Yet the status quo in Israeli politics is untenable. Demographic changes will further widen Israel’s social cleavages and produce an even more divided legislative body. Israel’s political dysfunction is well-documented, and its electoral system is the root cause. Coalition governments are inherently bad, but in Israel’s case they’re unstable to an unacceptable degree.
No matter what happens on April 9, we can expect a fractured vote. It’s clear that MKs should come together to reform an outdated electoral system.
Daniel J. Samet is a foreign affairs researcher in Washington, D.C.