Reform time (JERUSALEM POST EDITORIAL) 05/09/12)
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At a press conference to announce their coalition agreement, Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and incoming Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz
articulated four central goals. They plan to pass legislation that
will obligate ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student to perform military or
national service; they hope to pass a two-year fiscal budget; they
want to advance “responsible” peace negotiations with the
The two men also vowed to advance electoral reform aimed at fostering
The incorporation of Kadima to create the broadest coalition
government in Israeli history, with 94 MKs, presents a unique
opportunity. As early as October 1948, just months after the creation
of the state, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, called
to change the electoral system.
About 10 bills calling for regional elections were presented to the
Knesset between 1958 and 1988.
However, all such attempts at reform were torpedoed by small parties
that were members of consecutive government coalitions – especially
religious parties that stood to lose the most.
These parties presently take advantage of the fundamental instability
and chronic divisions that characterize our extreme proportional
representation government, with its relatively low 2-percent
threshold for election to the Knesset (the Netherlands is one of the
few countries with a lower threshold, at 0.67%).
These sorts of governments tend to encourage the creation of
political parties – such as the Pensioners Party, religious parties
or Shinui – with radical or narrow agendas that represent only a
fraction of the population or have fleeting popularity. Government
coalitions are created by pulling together a patchwork of diverse
factions. These governments are plagued with divisions and
instability. In many cases, a single party can bring down a
government, giving it inordinate leveraging power. Politicians tend
to be unknown sycophants willing to tow the party line but who are
unconcerned with representing the voters since their reelection
depends on internal party politics, not personal popularity.
It should come as no surprise that the average duration of Israeli
governments between 2000 and 2009 was less than three years, much
shorter than the world average. This has very bad ramifications for
long-term government planning.
Now with a large, stable coalition, Netanyahu and Mofaz can act where
previous political leaders failed. Neither Netanyahu nor Mofaz is
known as a proponent of electoral reform. And during Tuesday’s press
conference, both men were noticeably mum about the details of the
proposed reforms. Also, the deadline set for drafting the reforms –
the end of the year – seems unrealistically optimistic.
But the benefits of regional elections, at least for some of the
Knesset’s seats, are clear. Leaders with strong grassroots backing,
chosen for their unique talents, pragmatism and ability to get things
done, will be brought into politics. These men and women will be
obligated to represent their constituency, not the party hacks.
Raising the threshold is another important step that should be taken.
Until 1996, the two largest political parties combined consistently
had more than 70 Knesset seats. Since 1999, the two largest political
parties have had fewer than half the seats in the Knesset.
Smaller parties need to be encouraged to join larger parties. Voters
need to be encouraged to choose larger, more mainstream parties.
Another reform that should be considered is increasing the number of
Knesset seats. According to data presented by the Israel Democracy
Institute, the ratio of MKs to citizens in Israel is one to 59,000,
higher than in any comparatively sized European country.
The unprecedented size of the new government coalition and its
consequent stability provides a unique opportunity to institute much-
needed electoral reforms. We hope that Netanyahu and Mofaz will take
advantage of this situation to help ensure that future governments
enjoy similar stability. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post 05/09/12)
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