The necessary conclusion from the results of the 2019 election is that we have to raise the electoral threshold once again – and by a lot. The abundance of parties teetering around the current 3.25 percent – amid the possibility that some will offer themselves as coalition partners to the highest bidder – doesn’t reflect the public’s true wishes. Plus it grants excessive power to minority interests.
The election campaign brought the proliferation of parties to new heights of absurdity. The votes of the Zionist left, Arab society, religious Zionists and the socially conscious were divided among parties whose differences were based on their leaders’ inflated egos. Not one voter can really distinguish between Labor and Meretz, between the three far-right parties, between Kulanu and Gesher or between Hadash-Ta’al and United Arab List-Balad.
Meanwhile, Shas and United Torah Judaism represent Mizrahi and Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Jews respectively, so the differences between them are supposedly easier to understand. But they keep to the same Jewish law and usually coordinate their positions on matters of religion and state.
Resetting the electoral threshold could be based on two possible models. In the first, the threshold would take into account the two permanent minorities in Israel: Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, each with unique interests.
If the threshold were raised to 8 percent, the smallest party in the 120-seat Knesset would number 10 legislators and four blocs would be created: a right-wing party (Likud plus the religious Zionists), a left-wing party (Kahol Lavan, Labor and Meretz), an Arab party (the Joint List that served in the outgoing Knesset) and an ultra-Orthodox party (United Torah Judaism and Shas). These blocs reflect the main “tribes” in Israeli society.
In the second and bolder model, with an electoral threshold of 25 percent, the smallest party would number 30 MKs and Israel would shift to a two-party system. The ultra-Orthodox would be integrated into the right-wing party and the left would open its ranks to the Arabs.
Such a result was achieved in the past by the direct election of the prime minister, the most fundamental reform ever made in the Israeli system of government. This would allow a clear and unequivocal decision with a clear winner and loser.
But the direct election of the prime minister is remembered as a failure because it spawned the hybrid of a weak prime minister and a multiplicity of small and midsize parties. Instead of improving governability, it weakened it – until Ariel Sharon brought back the full parliamentary system.
The Israeli multiparty system was born at the Zionist congresses that began in 1897 and in the Assembly of Representatives of the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine. This system emphasizes representation and freedom of expression at the expense of governability. This had a great deal of logic because the Zionist movement was a minority group within the Jewish people and wanted to enlist supporters from communities all over the world. Plus it didn’t have a state or military that had to be managed.
When the State of Israel was founded, the system with numerous parties was copied to be the Israeli system, and since 1948 no party has won an absolute majority in the Knesset. All Israeli governments have been based on coalitions, which have functioned as checks and balances against the governing party amid the threat that the government will be brought down and an early election called.
But the coalition system also has weaknesses. First, the constant threat of being ousted requires the prime minister to assiduously maintain the coalition and avoid confrontations with the small parties, which have veto power over crucial decisions. This is how, for example, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, who won the 1999 and 2006 elections respectively, tried to advance the peace processes with the Palestinians and Syrians but were dependent on right-wing parties that blocked their initiatives.
The second problem concerns the opposition, which is divided into a number of parties with different interests; these parties have a hard time cooperating and changing the government.
The confusion of the latest election night is a wake-up call for a renewed debate on the system’s principles and on raising the electoral threshold. This would reduce the uncertainty and guarantee more stable government, while providing representation for minorities as part of broad political frameworks.