How and Why Israel Lost the General Election

A week after the general election, Israelis still do not know who will be their prime minister — Tzipi Livni or Benjamin Netanyahu.
February 19, 2009

A week after the general election, Israelis still do not know who will be their prime minister — Tzipi Livni or Benjamin Netanyahu. 

The lack of clarity underlines the weakness of a political system that is archaic, unstable and overall problematic.

If there are any losers in this election, it is neither Ehud Barak’s Labor Party, nor the leftwing Meretz, nor the Arab-Israeli sector. The real losers are the citizens of Israel, who have been once again held hostage by a parliamentary system that is both economically and politically inefficient.

How does the electoral system function in Israel? Israel’s government is based on a parliamentary, multiparty system. The Knesset is a unicameral house, which consists of 120 elected members who (supposedly) run for office every four years.

Every citizen over 18 is automatically registered to vote. Election is direct; there is no electoral college standing between the voter and the elected official.

When voting, Israelis cast one ballot — that of the party they support. Since representation is proportional, the more votes a party wins, the greater the number of candidates from the party list who become Knesset members. Normally, the leader of the largest party is assigned by the president to be prime minister. However, the key to becoming prime minister is the capacity to form a majority coalition. And this is where Israel’s chief problem begins.

Forming a coalition means that the largest party needs to ally itself with like-minded parties, thus creating a bloc of at least 60 parliamentary seats. Unless a coalition is formed, the government is not allowed to take action. 

Such a system is bearable as long as Israel’s main street leans toward a certain party, be it a left-wing, a right-wing or a centrist one. If most Israelis vote for right-wing parties, for example, it is easier for a right-wing leader to establish a coalition of over 60 Knesset seats.

The trouble begins when the Israeli street is divided rather equally between two competing camps. In this case, the leader of the party that succeeds in forming a coalition of over 60 seats becomes prime minister. Remember: He or she doesn’t necessarily have to be the leader of the largest party! All they need is to be able to form a stable majority coalition.

This is precisely why a fierce battle is now unfolding between Livni and Netanyahu and why the outcome of this battle is in the hands of Israel Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman.

Despite the fact that Livni won 28 Knesset seats, the most in this election, Netanyahu, who won 27 seats, could theoretically still form the 60-seat coalition more safely. To do so, Netanyahu would need Lieberman to be on his side, rather than on Livni’s. This would secure Netanyahu’s path to becoming prime minister.

The coalition-based system is wrought with flaws, one of which is evident from the description above. The haggling associated with forming a 60-seat coalition opens the door for unending corruption. Assuming that a leader’s fundamental desire is to govern, there is barely anything he or she will not do to have the upper hand in forming a coalition. Therefore, when striving to form a coalition, back-door agreements are signed, promises are made and money is transferred from one hand to another. And since a coalition can collapse at any point throughout the four years of governing, the deals cut and hands shaken continue incessantly.

The permanent mode of government survival incurs major costs onto Israel’s society, including lack of political transparency and accountability, as well as bureaucratic inefficiency.

The parliamentary system is further associated with political instability.

The most imminent threat hovering over the existence of a governing coalition is the failure of the annual budget. If the annual budget doesn’t pass, the Knesset adjourns until elections are called for. Further, if a certain party decides to quit the coalition for any reason, and in so doing challenges the 60-seat majority, the government loses its political legitimacy and elections are called for.

If every two Jews hold three opinions, you can only imagine why the Israeli ship of state has found itself being navigated by five prime ministers in just the past 10 years.

The lack of political stability incurs immense societal and economic costs on Israel, both domestically and in the foreign arena.

Domestically, Israeli Cabinet members who hold certain portfolios (such as transportation, homeland security and even defense) often do not take the time to study their portfolios properly. Since Cabinet members are not professional technocrats, but rather elected party officials, many times a minister is assigned to a portfolio without knowing much about the field in hand. Since some ministers assume the government would not last long, they end up serving their term without making a real policy impact.

In the foreign arena, political processes often start but rarely end.

To be sure, no one can guarantee that a certain government will endure, and that a certain process will be carried through. The peace process with Israel’s Arab neighbors is an example of a process that ceases and resumes every time an administration changes in Jerusalem. 

Financially, the lack of stability daunts foreign investors, who cannot trust the government to remain in place. The Israeli markets end up losing a great deal from such political turbulences.

Economically, elections and re-elections are simply costly. Campaigning every 18 months, on average, is expensive, and the suspension and resumption of policy-making without clear successes is utterly wasteful.

Last week’s election reminded Israelis what they all know too well.

That is, that with a parliamentary system, Israel cannot fully leverage its political and economic potential.

Imagine an Israel with a stable, efficient and clean government: Sixty years from now, we will have made it to the moon and back.

Shira Kaplan is an Israeli graduate of the government department at Harvard College. She is the founder of

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