“Governing system” reform in Israel?

Israel’s Minister of Transportation, Yisrael Katz, says, “We will replace the governing system before the upcoming elections”, according to Ynet.

Having spent some months in Israel in 2010, partly to work on political reform proposals, I have some idea how tough a nut this is. So I don’t necessarily expect anything big to happen in the 21 months or less leading up to the next general election.

Areas of reform would supposedly include raising the threshold for a party to enter the Knesset, limiting the number of ministers and deputies, increasing the number of votes required to for a vote of a no confidence, and adopting regional elections.

Some of these are good ideas, some bad. For example, raising the number of votes needed for the Knesset to dismiss a government would, by definition, mean replacing the parliamentary system of government. If more than 61 votes (out of 120) are required, then a government could lose the confidence of a majority–the situation that would lead to a change of government or early elections under parliamentarism–yet remain in office.

If government originates from the parliamentary majority, but is not dependent upon it for its survival, then the regime is what I call assembly-independent, not parliamentary. This is one of the “mixed” systems, in that it does not have either “fusion” of both origin and survival (parliamentarism), not “separation” of both (presidentialism), but rather mixes and matches. So I have to say that it would be quite good for political science if Israel would do this, as the country has already had the opposite combination–separation of origin but fusion of survival–during the phase of directly elected prime ministers from 1996 to 2001. I could imagine writing some interesting papers! But I doubt such a system is a good idea for Israel. It seems it would reduce, rather than increase, accountability.

Raising the threshold, which is currently 2%, seems like a good idea. However, as always, even a good idea has its downside. It just so happens that some of the parties that regularly reside right around the current threshold are the parties that attract mainly Arab votes. For instance, Balad has hovered between 1.9% and 2.5% since 1999, the United Arab List 2.1% and 3.4%, and Hadash 2.6% and 3.3%. A threshold that threatens these parties (individually, and it is not a certainty that they would merge) is problematic, to say the least. If one wanted to force one of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, United Torah Judaism, to direct its votes to someone else’s list, the threshold would need to be as high as 5% (UTJ has had 3.7-4.7% during this time, with some upward tendency). So raising the threshold is not so simple, after all. Besides, even with a 5% threshold, the problem that Israel has as many as five parties capable of getting 10% but not any of them would necessarily get much over 30% in any given election, would remain.

The Israeli system needs reform, but what sort of reforms is not a straightforward question.

11 thoughts on ““Governing system” reform in Israel?

  1. Interesting that adopting top-two runoff to elect the chief executive “worked” in France to promote a two-bloc (not of course two-party) system, but didn’t in Israel. Of course, Israel only used T2RO for a short time, and kept PR for the legislature. And France was already “tending bipolar” after 1958, seven years before the first direct presidential election. But then, I wonder how many French politicians in 1958 realised that the president was going to be the chief executive.

    The French head of state’s role, it seems, has morphed from something like the Australian or Canadian governor-general to something very close to the US president (quick test: Name the current French premier. No googling!) in less than 40 years, based primarily on a shift from indirect to direct election, with very few other legal changes (albeit with some, ah, extra-legal re-interpretation by de Gaulle). The recent change from 7- to 5-year terms rubber-stamps this change, but was not of course the cause of it.

    Back on topic: I read some years ago a claim that districting – even, say, 10 twelve-seaters – wouldn’t work very well in Israel because the small population would make gerrymandering very easy. My rough guess is that, with concentrated neighbourhoods full of ultra-Orthodox etc, twelve-seaters with Hare largest remainder and no threshold might benefit some of the current minority blocs even more than nationwide PR with a threshold. Shades of India where many of the smaller parties and minorities have their regional strongholds and favour SMDs over PR for that reason!

  2. The problem with the Israeli direct election system was the Knesset retained the power to sack the prime minister without itself facing election. Direct election meant very little without a dissolution power.

    The Namibian model would perhaps have worked better. Sadly the hegemonic position of SWAPO means the mutual suicide rule (assembly and president can dismiss each other but both must face election) has never been tested.

    You would also have to ask if the ANC would have so casually dismissed Mbeki from the South African presidency if he had held the capacity to dissolve.

    • The impact on their respective party systems of the adoption of direct executive elections in France and Israel, and how they were different, is the topic of an entire chapter of Davd J. Samuels and Matthew S. Shugart, Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

      On the Namibia comparison, the Israel system had a stronger “mutual suicide pact”. In both countries, the elected head of the executive branch can (could) dissolve the assembly but such an act would trigger new executive elections. In Namibia, unlike the former Israeli system, a vote of no confidence topples only the cabinet, not the elected chief executive. (At least that has always been my interpretation of the Namibian constitution.)

  3. Uri Averny has a column about the factions within the Israeli electorate:


    Honestly, I don’t think the problem is with the political system at all. Israeli society is just unusually fragmented. The politics reflect that, which in a democratic polity it should.

    And we are dealing with the Israeli electorate, and ignoring the occupied territories, where the key decisions are still made by the Israeli cabinet but the people living there have no vote, unless they are Jews. This is the big element in the room. At the least they could rectify the anomaly, either take the vote away from the settlers, or start extending it to groups of Palestinians in the occupied territory (and no it doesn’t have to be all of them, at least not all at once).

    Given that you have a highly fragmented country that can’t agree on its own borders or who its citizens are, I think the current Israeli political system does a remarkably good job at whatever it is political systems are supposed to do. Any change will likely make things worse.

    • Israel allows lists to engage on pooling arrangements (apparentment); however, each list in such an arrangement must individually pass the threshold in order for the pooling to take effect.

  4. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

  5. Ed: “a highly fragmented country that can’t agree on its own borders or who its citizens are”.

    Israel has formally defined its borders with the two countries that have signed peace treaties with it, Jordan and Egypt. Its borders with Lebanon and Syria are contested, but demarcated nonetheless. Israel has not established borders with a Palestinian state because the latter does not (yet) exist.

    As for who the states’ citizens are, there really is not much debate about this. They are Jews who have come to Israel under the Law of Return, and anyone who resided within the territories controlled by the nascent state at the conclusion of the War of Independence in 1949.

    Only a small fringe would claim that the Arab residents of the territories of the former British Mandate territory of Palestine that were occupied by Jordan and Egypt after that war should be granted citizenship. And no one realistically expects residents of the rest of the British Mandatory territory who fled the war will ever be granted Israeli citizenship–let alone their descendants who never lived in Israel (or Palestine).

    Thus, while I agree broadly with what Ed said in the remainder of the sentence I quoted from, I am at a loss to understand what the quoted clause has to do with the broader point.

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