How to improve Israel’s governance

Increasing the electoral threshold contributed nothing to the new coalition’s stability. But a different law may direct votes to the two largest parties.

Moshe_Arens_cropped-150x150By Moshe Arens

When Avigdor Lieberman, the absolute ruler of the Yisrael Beiteinu party,announced at the last minute that he would not join the coalition government formed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the left was jubilant. “Lieberman has taught Netanyahu a lesson”, some commentators trumpeted. But actually, Lieberman throughout his political career has taught all of us a lesson in how not to improve the governance of our political system. Or more precisely, how to destabilize a political system that already suffers from lack of stability.

The irony is that it was Lieberman, who over the years claimed to be an advocate of improving governance, an objective desired by all, now tried to deal a fatal blow to the governance of the coalition being formed by Netanyahu. If the real reason for his last-minute decision not to join a coalition led by Netanyahu had been ideological he might be deserving of respect. But he had always declared that he was part of the “national camp,” had formed a parliamentary union with Likud in the last Knesset, and during the election told voters that he would back Netanyahu for prime minister. Now, disappointed with his poor showing in the election, in an act of spite, waiting until the last moment in the hope of upsetting the coalition apple cart, he struck a blow intended to impair the next government’s ability to function.

There was a time when he claimed that the cure for the perennial instability of Israel’s political system was to adopt a presidential system of governance. The United States system seemed to be the model that he had in mind for the change he advocated. To those not fully acquainted with the workings of the American system of government it seemed the perfect example, where the president is elected for a four-year term and is seemingly able to pursue his policies unhampered during this period.

The deadlock between the White House and Congress that has characterized much of the Obama presidency was an eye-opener to them. So maybe Lieberman had the current Russian system in mind, where Vladimir Putin is free to do as he pleases. But that kind of presidential system nobody in Israel would care to adopt.

Making no headway with his proposal for a presidential system, he advocated increasing the threshold of votes required for a party to be represented in the Knesset. He, like many others, naively assumed that reducing the number of small parties in the Knesset would by itself improve the stability of the governing coalition, even though there is no theoretical or empirical evidence to support this assumption. Pressured by him, a law raising the threshold to 3.25% was passed. As can be seen by the newly elected Knesset the law contributed nothing to the stability of the new coalition government – if anything forming the coalition would probably have been easier if the threshold had remained unchanged.

This brings us to the question of what can be done to improve the governance of a coalition government within the framework of the parliamentary democracy which provides, as it should, proportional representation to the various segments of Israeli society. Since in the final analysis it is the voter who decides, incentives should be provided for voters to prefer casting their ballot for one of the two major parties, Likud and Labor.

A law which would provide that the leader of the largest party be the first to be charged with forming a coalition would tend to direct votes to the two large parties, thus increasing their representation in the Knesset at the expense of the smaller parties. This law should still allow the president to ask another member of the Knesset to undertake this task if the initial attempt did not succeed, thus preventing a deadlock.

But most important, the leadership of Likud and Labor must work assiduously to build up party membership and party loyalty, while discouraging the unique Israeli phenomenon of party leaders wandering from party to party.

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