The Electoral System and the Voter

The national objective should be to draw Israel’s Arab citizens into Israeli society – not to push them out of it.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on February 9, 2009.)

No democracies are perfect, nor are their various electoral systems. They all have their advantages and disadvantages, and it would be a mistake to believe that somewhere out there an ideal system exists. Different electoral systems and systems of government are suited to the respective country’s interests.

In Israel, a parliamentary democracy, the electoral system is one of proportional representation. In other words, each competing political party receives Knesset representation that closely matches the votes it receives in the election. The inevitable result is a large number of parties in the Knesset. It follows, therefore, that the government is then supported by a coalition of parties that command a majority in the Knesset. But the mechanics and dynamics of a coalition government make for instability, sometimes resulting in short-lived governments and frequent elections.

So what has proportional representation to recommend it, aside from the seemingly just distribution of representation in the Knesset? Its very important attribute for Israel is that it allows parties representing certain sectors of Israeli society, which might otherwise be left out in the cold, to participate in the political process. This is particularly important for Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups. In any other electoral system, they would most likely be barred from participating in the political process, and the populations they represent would be alienated from the nation’s societal fabric. In Israel, whose society at this stage is heterogeneous, this is a matter of great importance, well worth the price of political instability that may be incurred.

It is no wonder that the foremost advocate of the move to a presidential system of government is Avigdor Lieberman, who in any case would prefer not to see Israel’s Arab citizens represented in the Knesset. Tzipi Livni, as well, talks about the need to adopt a presidential system here, consistent with her statement in the past that Israeli Arabs should seek the fulfillment of their national aspirations in a Palestinian state that would presumably be established in due time. In other words – not in Israel.

Although the rhetoric of some  Arab Knesset members is hardly consistent with Israel’s Declaration of Independence, it would be a grave mistake to bar them from participating in the Knesset elections, as originally determined by the Knesset electoral committee, thus excluding many of Israel’s Arab citizens from the national political process. The national objective should be to draw Israel’s Arab citizens into Israeli society – not to push them out of it. MKs, Jew or Arab, who break the law by visiting countries that are in a state of war with Israel are another matter, which does not relate to participation in Knesset elections. There is no reason to show tolerance for this kind of lawless behavior.

Whatever stability exists in the present political system is based on the longtime presence of two large political parties, Likud and Labor, which head the coalition government after elections. Changing the system to increase the representation of these parties will increase the stability of the system, while anything that decreases their representation will make for national instability. Thus the unfortunate introduction of the Direct Election of the Prime Minister Law increased the representation of the smaller parties at the expense of the two large parties, and was quickly seen to be a step in the wrong direction. A law that would give the party with the largest number of votes the first chance to try to assemble a coalition after the election would draw votes to the large parties, creating stability. However, it has not yet been legislated because of the opposition of the smaller parties.

Add to this mix the confusing emergence three years ago of Kadima, bringing about a drastic reduction in Likud and Labor’s representation in the Knesset. By all indications, Kadima is not likely to replace either Likud or Labor as a major party. The life expectancy of a political party not held together by common ideology, but comprised of politicians motivated mainly by opportunism, is probably no more than four years.

So what are intelligent voters supposed to do in the coming election? Unless they feel intimately connected to one of the smaller political parties that claim to represent their specific sectoral interests, and if they prefer stability, they should vote for one of the large parties. Likud or Labor – that is the decision facing most voters tomorrow.

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