The problem with Israel’s electoral system


Israel’s electoral system is the root cause of the disheartening polarization and superficiality on display in Israel’s current election season. Many wrongly point to the egos of our politicians as the underlying reason. In reality, powerful constitutional disincentives for collaboration shape our politics.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy, whereby voters elect parties to serve in the 120-seat Knesset, based on proportional representation. Thus, a party that receives 10 percent of the votes would hold 12 seats. After elections, parties must establish a coalition of a minimum of 61 MKs, the head of which becomes the prime minister.

This system encourages divisiveness among the public. The 34 parties that will stand for election next week distinguish themselves by inciting and polarizing: religious versus secular, poor versus rich, Ashkenazim versus Sephardim, periphery against center, hawks against doves, Jews against Arabs. On the right, the joint list of the Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu is losing power to smaller sectoral parties such as Shas and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. On the left, Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovich and Shaul Mofaz — of Yesh Atid, Hatnua, Labor and Kadima, respectively — failed to join forces in spite of evident similarities in their vision.

Meanwhile, after the elections, some of these parties inevitably will make up the next government, and many of them will repeatedly join forces on various legislative initiatives. Hence, while the public remains divided, the politicians collaborate.

A reversal of this pattern could be readily available through a simple amendment establishing as prime minister the head of the party that gets the highest number of votes. This would encourage politicians to join forces in inclusive political frameworks and broad sectors of the population to support two ruling Zionist parties on the right and on the left. It would also incentivize politicians to be centrist and pragmatic.

I hope that such a change will be the legacy of the coming Knesset. There will be a large parliamentary block that would support such a reform, and powerful forces are gearing up with the civil society as well. The position of the likely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party will be key, as in the current election campaign they have been the primary victim of the present electoral system.

Finally, a thought on the U.S. political system: The polarization of American politics and the deadlock in Washington may also result from a crisis in its electoral system. Decades of gerrymandering have turned most electoral districts into either red or blue, breeding ideological politicians who cater to their ideological bases and not pragmatically to the center. The United States thrived when it was purple. It is muddling through when it is red or blue. Go purple.

A final note: My personal perspective on these issues dates back to 1999: My service in the Bureau of the Prime Minister between 1999 and 2001 exposed me to the structural failure of Israeli governance. After a year at Harvard’s Kennedy School (class of 2002), I launched Re’ut to generate substantive impact, as well as an initiative named Yesodot (Foundations) to reform Israeli governance, which was active until 2004. I have served the cause of electoral reform ever since and am proud that the core logic of Yesodot is now commonly accepted by all other groups working toward this end.


Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Re’ut Institute in Tel Aviv.

Computer woes force Likud to extend hours in primary vote


Polls will remain open past midnight in Likud Party primary voting following computer malfunctions at several polling stations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the chairman of the ruling Likud, made the announcement Sunday of the longer voting hours following malfunctions at several stations, including the 80 computerized voting systems at Jerusalem's main polling station at the International Convention Center.

The problems led to calls by party leaders to postpone the vote after voters were turned away at some polling stations or left without casting their ballots after waiting a long time.

The party's 123,351 members are voting to select the Knesset list ahead of the Jan. 22 national elections. The polls opened at 9 a.m.

Some 97 Likud candidates are competing for 25 realistic spots on the Likud's Knesset list.

Meanwhile, Yair Lapid, head of the newly formed centrist party Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, said Sunday that he had offered former Kadima Party head Tzipi Livni the second slot on his party's list, and promised that she would be a full partner in all major decisions.

“Splitting the centrist bloc is not good for Israel, and I am calling her to join forces and change the country together,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Israeli political constellation realigns as Kadima quits government


For the second time in just two months, the Israeli political universe was upended when Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima Party voted to quit Israel’s governing coalition.

Kadima’s departure, the result of a breakdown in negotiations over reforming Israel’s military draft law to include Charedi Orthodox Jews, shatters the 94-seat super-majority that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu controlled in the 120-seat Knesset.

It also raises questions for the future of Kadima, Israel’s draft and the timing of new elections.

While the loss of Kadima’s 28 seats still leaves Netanyahu’s coalition with the majority it needs to govern, Netanyahu is now seen as more likely to move up Israel’s next elections, which now are scheduled for fall 2013.

Netanyahu had been set to dissolve the Knesset and call for new elections nine weeks ago when Mofaz stunned the Israeli political establishment by bringing Kadima, Israel’s main opposition party, into the governing coalition. The move was seen as a gambit by Mofaz, who had won Kadima’s leadership several weeks earlier, to stave off elections in which Kadima was set to lose significant ground.

For Netanyahu, the coalition deal was a way both to hobble the opposition and give him more leeway in formulating a new military draft law. In February, Israel’s Supreme Court struck down the current draft regulation, called the Tal Law, which excuses Charedi Orthodox from universal mandatory military service for Israeli Jews. The court ordered that a new law be enacted by Aug. 1 or else all Israeli Jews would be subject to the draft.

Netanyahu’s other coalition partners include Charedi Orthodox parties that oppose drafting large numbers of Charedi men or subjecting them to national service. 

The debate over the new draft law has roiled Israel in recent weeks. Many Israelis long have resented what they see as the free ride given to Charedi Israelis, who are not required to serve in the army but are still eligible for state welfare benefits.

In the end it was Kadima that quit the government in protest over proposed reforms that it said did not go far enough.

At a news conference on July 17 announcing Kadima’s decision to leave the government, Mofaz said he had rejected Netanyahu’s proposal of deferring national service until age 26; Kadima wanted the draft deferral to end at age 22.

“It is with deep regret that I say that there is no choice but to decide to leave the government,” Mofaz told a closed-door meeting of Kadima, according to the Israeli news site Ynet. Only three of Kadima’s 28 members voted in favor of staying in the coalition.

“Netanyahu has chosen to side with the draft-dodgers,” Mofaz told reporters after the meeting, according to Haaretz. “I have reached an understanding that the prime minister has not left us a choice and so we have responded.”

In a letter to Mofaz from Netanyahu’s office, the prime minister responded, “I gave you a proposal that would have led to the conscription of ultra-Orthodox and Arabs from the age of 18. I explained to you that the only way to implement this on the ground is gradually and without tearing Israeli society apart, especially at a time when the State of Israel is facing many significant challenges. I will continue to work toward the responsible solution that Israeli society expects.”

With just two weeks to go before the Tal Law expires, it’s not clear where Kadima’s departure leaves the future of Israel’s military draft.

What seems certain is that Kadima has been weakened by the episode. Two months ago, polls showed Kadima stood to lose two-thirds of its Knesset seats in new elections. Government opponents harshly criticized Mofaz when he then decided to hitch his centrist party to Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party.

“Unfortunately, everything I warned about two months ago and everything I expected to happen, happened,” said Haim Ramon, a Knesset member who quit Kadima when Mofaz joined the government. “Netanyahu’s allies are the Charedim and the settlers. Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding himself and the public. This move has brought on Kadima’s demise, and Shaul Mofaz is the one accountable,” Ramon said, according to Ynet.

If new elections were held today, Kadima likely would implode, with the biggest chunk of its seats going to Likud (Kadima originally was created as an offshoot of Likud) and others to a new centrist party, Yesh Atid, or to left-wing parties.

On July 17, Yesh Atid’s chairman, Yair Lapid, called for Netanyahu to declare new elections immediately.

“We are ready for elections, and it’s time to rid Israel of this bad government,” Lapid said, according to Ynet.

For now, analysts are predicting that Netanyahu will call for new elections in early 2013.

Mofaz beats Livni for Kadima leadership


Shaul Mofaz decisively defeated Tzipi Livni to become the new leader of Israel’s Kadima Party.

Mofaz received 62 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s Kadima primary to unseat Livni as the leader of Israel’s main opposition party. Forty-five percent of the party’s 95,000 registered members voted in the primary.

The Iranian-born Mofaz is a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Mofaz and Livni, who both were members of the right-wing Likud Party before joining Kadima, have been fierce rivals for the past several years. In 2008 Livni narrowly beat Mofaz to become Kadima’s leader. Previous party heads were founder Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.

In a late-night victory speech, Mofaz called on Livni to remain in the party, saying “Tzipi, your place is with us.”

Recent polls suggested that Kadima, which has 28 seats in the current Knesset, likely will see its support plunge dramatically in the next elections. That would be the case, the polls noted, regardless of whether Mofaz or Livni was the party’s leader.