Israeli Electoral Reform Dream: What a Headache

When I left Los Angeles for Israel many years ago, two of the 15 members on the L.A. City Council, who are elected by voters in their geographical district, were widely rumored to
be corrupt and a third councilman didn’t even bother to hide it. Yet these three guys kept getting re-elected every four years like clockwork.

All told, the 15 elected council members, each of them answerable to their separate constituencies, included effective politicians and hapless ones, brave leaders and cowards, lawmakers of integrity and plain whores.

I only know this because I was a reporter covering L.A. City Hall before I made aliyah. Ordinarily, I would have had no idea what my council member or any other council member was doing, and neither did anybody I knew. We also had constituency elections, or district voting, for L.A. County supervisor, state assemblyman, state senator and U.S. congressman. Very few people even knew who these officeholders were.

In fact, the only politicians whose performances were of interest to much of the public were the big leaguers, the ones who got elected at large — the governor of California, the state’s two U.S. senators and, of course, the president.

I bring this up because there’s a belief among many Israelis, or at least among many “Anglos” (native English speakers), that if we change the electoral system and divide Israel up into geographical districts so that the Knesset, or at least half the Knesset, is elected by district voting, we will get a higher class of politicians and a cleaner, better political life in this country.

There will finally be accountability, goes the argument. The politicians will know they are answerable to a specific community of voters, and that if they don’t keep that community satisfied, they will be out on their ear in the next election. A citizen will know that he can call up his district Knesset member and get his streetlight fixed, because the Knesset member will be afraid to disappoint his newly empowered constituent.

The way it is now, say proponents of district elections, there’s no accountability, because everybody votes for one or another national list of Knesset candidates, which means each Knesset member has a constituency of everybody, which effectively means that he’s answerable to nobody. So between elections, the politicians do whatever they want, and the voters have no control over them. And this, say advocates of electoral reform, is one of the main reasons why Israeli politics is in the mess it’s in.

I must say, I don’t get it. What are Israelis’ complaints about the politicians — that they’re corrupt? Fine, let’s say they’re corrupt, but how would constituent elections make them any less so?

Wouldn’t a Knesset member elected in Knesset District 47 be just as able to do a favor for some rich guy and get paid for it — and then cover it up — as he would if he were elected as he is now on the Knesset list of Kadima or Labor or Likud or Shas or anybody else?

What other complaints do the voters have? That the politicians running the government botched the war in Lebanon? Even if that’s true, would district elections have made any difference? Under the current electoral system, Israeli voters have been able to elect great warriors as prime ministers — and they all proved to be fallible or worse at providing security.

Let’s have some more complaints against Israeli politicians: They promise big and deliver little, they’re beholden to powerful interests, they don’t care about the ordinary citizen, they say whatever the polls tell them to say, they poison the atmosphere with vicious attacks on their opponents.

Right. Hanging is too good for them. But again, how are district elections supposed to improve their behavior? These are the same complaints against politicians made by voters in the United States, despite their district elections. In the whole world, is there any country, no matter what its voting system, where the people don’t find their politicians to be corrupt, irresponsible, phony, etc.?

In Israel, there is, however, an example of how electoral politics might look with district voting, with more of a grass-roots element, with politicians being accountable to a geographically compact, relatively small population of voters. It’s called local government, municipal government. Isn’t it wonderful? Especially in all these little towns with 30,000 or 40,000 people, where the mayor and the council members know all the residents, and the residents all know them. Isn’t this the way Israeli national politics, Knesset politics, ought to be?

You should know that I’m joking. We just missed a national strike last month, and we may not be so lucky in the weeks to come, because dozens of municipalities haven’t paid their workers in months, due to their locally elected politicians’ corruption, cronyism, wastefulness and other skills.

Local government in Israel, especially in some of these little towns where residents really do call up their friends at City Hall to get their streetlights fixed, is known for being an easy target for crooked contractors, for mafionerim. The violence and lawlessness between rival camps is much, much worse in the towns and cities than it is at the national level. In politics, familiarity is liable to breed contempt.

Finally, let’s remember that the current Knesset and national government are the way they are after about 15 years of experimenting with electoral reform. First the good-government types said we needed direct election of the prime minister to end the small (i.e. Charedi) parties’ blackmail; then, when the blackmail continued anyway, they decided to go back to the old system. First everybody used to complain that Israeli governments fell every 18 months; that there were too many elections. Now they’re complaining that the Olmert government stinks, but you can’t get rid of them; that there won’t be another election until way off in 2010.

After 15 years, electoral reform in Israel has turned out to be an exercise in exchanging one headache for another. The problem isn’t the system, whatever it may be. The problem isn’t lack of accountability, either.