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.

Can Labor’s new leader Shelly Yachimovich revive the party?

The Israeli Labor Party’s new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, makes a grand entrance at the annual Rosh Hashanah toast for party activists.

Well over an hour after the guests begin munching on puff pastries, she is greeted like a conquering hero as she wades into the crowd wearing black jeans and sandals. Everyone wants to shake her hand, hug her, kiss her.

Yachimovich ascends the makeshift dais and waits as each of Labor’s Knesset members makes a brief speech offering good wishes for the New Year. The speakers include former Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whom she had edged for the party leadership in primaries last month.

In her remarks, Yachimovich concentrates on socioeconomic issues—her signature focus and, analysts say, the reason she won the Labor primaries after a summer of socioeconomic discontent in Israel.

“What is Netanyahu’s solution to the high cost of living?” she asks the enthusiastic crowd, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “To open the Israeli markets, to destroy Israeli industry, to cause thousands of workers to lose their jobs. Not in our party! Not in our party!”

The crowd applauds.

“We are the only ones on the political map who can present a real, deep, social democratic alternative to the capitalistic extremism that Netanyahu has championed,” she says.

Yachimovich, 51, has been in the Knesset for six years. Before that she was a well-known journalist, first on Israel Radio and then on Channel 2. She also wrote two novels.

In contrast to most Israeli political leaders, who emphasize security issues, Yachimovich has focused on social justice causes. She initiated laws requiring employers to provide chairs for their cashiers, favoring Israeli factories and companies over foreign ones, and extending maternity leave to 14 weeks.

Her reputation for social causes worked in her favor following a summer that saw hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets for protests focusing on socioeconomic issues.

Yachimovich’s candidacy succeeded in attracting thousands of young voters to Labor, which had become known in Israel as the “alter kockers party” – Yiddish for “old folks.”

The election last month seems to have breathed new life into the Labor Party, which had been Israel’s dominant party for its first three decades but has faltered greatly over the last 10 years. In the 2009 elections, Labor suffered a crushing defeat, winning just 13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset and falling to No. 4 in size among Israel’s political parties.

Another blow came earlier this year when Defense Minister Ehud Barak split off to form a new party called Atzmaut. He took four Knesset members with him.

Labor activists hope Yachimovich can unite the party and make it a renewed force in Israeli politics.

“Labor must rebuild itself with the goal of leading the social camp and the peace camp,” former Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna told JTA. “These days, when ‘peace’ is a bad word, we have to rebuild hope. Only a combination of peace and social justice can create a new reality.”

Yachimovich is only the second woman to lead Israel’s Labor Party; the first was Prime Minister Golda Meir. The Knesset’s largest party, Kadima, also is led by a woman, Tzipi Livni, while another woman, Zahava Gal-On, is competing to lead the leftist Meretz Party.

“I think she did an excellent job as a parliamentarian,” said Labor Party activist Eli Aloni. “She doesn’t have enough experience in foreign policy, but she’s a smart woman. She’ll learn.”

Media reports frequently describe Yachimovich as having a cold personality, and she has come under particular fire from a former colleague at Channel 2, Nehemia Shtrasler.

Despite being a former journalist, Yachimovich often rebuffs the press. She declined an interview with JTA, and Jerusalem Post political reporter Gil Hoffman said she cut off an interview with him after 90 seconds.

Labor still has a long way to go before it returns to its former glory. Recent surveys found that if elections were held today, Labor would win 22 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, passing both Kadima and Yisrael Beitenu but still trailing the Likud.