The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy


How Israel Became Dysfunctional

Filed under: Democratic MethodsElectorate/DemographicsPoliticiansRepresentation — eidelberg @ 12:20 am

Edited transcript of the Eidelberg Report, Israel National Radio, January 7, 2008.

Having learned of my critique of Israel’s political system, people have asked me how did this dysfunctional system originate? To answer, I will cite a publication of the Beth Hillel Society for Social Research in Israel supplemented by passages from David Ben-Gurion’s Memoirs.

In June 1953, the Hillel Society published a pamphlet “Electoral Reform in Israel.” The pamphlet was based on discussions the Society held in October 1952. The pamphlet outlines the emergence of Israel’s parliamentary system.

Thus, on May 14, 1948, 37 Jews met in Tel-Aviv and published a Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed the creation of the State of Israel. These 37 Jews constituted the Jewish People’s Council, which had been set up in two months earlier. The Council was composed firstly, of all political parties in the country, and secondly, of the Executive of the Jewish Agency according to the election returns of the twenty-second Zionist Congress, which had convened in Basel, Switzerland in 1946. This 37-man body declared itself, on May 14, 1948, the Provisional State Council of Israel.

Following a national census on November 8, 1948, the Council passed an Ordinance providing for general elections for a Constituent Assembly of 120 persons. The election took place on January 25, 1949 on the basis of national party lists and proportional representation with a one percent electoral threshold. There you have the parliamentary electoral system that has governed or misgoverned Israel for the past 60 years, only now the electoral threshold is two percent.

The Constituent Assembly convened on February 14, 1949 and moved to call itself the First Knesset. Since no party obtained an absolute majority in the elections, a Coalition Government was formed composed of the Mapai (the original Labor Party), the Religious Bloc, and several other parties. This first Government resigned on October 16, 1950 over a question of cabinet portfolios. A new government was formed, but it fell a few months later, on February 5, 1951 over an issue involving religious education.

By the time the pamphlet on electoral reform was published, Israel had four Governments in less than four years. All four governments had one thing in common: they were all a motley collection of various parties. This is what prompted the Hillel Society to propose electoral reform. Let’s examine what the pamphlet says about the existing electoral system.

Since Israel is predominantly an immigration population, the country abounds in small political factions bent on pursuing their own cherished aims even in the face of jeopardizing the existence of the entire community. Israeli society thus exhibits a lack of mutual understanding and trust among different ethnic sections of this immigrant population. There are no cohesive social forces among these diverse groups. [Think of today’s Shas and the Israel Beiteinu Parties, more concerned about their cabinet posts than about Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem.]

This divisive and destructive state of affairs is facilitated and amplified by making the country a single electoral district in which parties compete for Knesset seats on the basis of proportional representation. Far more than constituency or regional elections, proportional representation splinters Israel into a multiplicity of ethnic and religious or ideologically motivated groups more concerned about their own interests than the national interest. Since no party in Israel has ever won an electoral majority, no party represents the will of the majority: one can hardly speak of a national will.

Most people, including politicians, do not realize that the electoral system of a country is an integral, organic part of the institutional structure of society, that it should be made to contribute its part to the development of national unity. Apart from any theoretical advantages or disadvantages of the systems of proportional representation versus constituency elections, the decisive question is: Which is best suited to answer Israel’s needs?

The Hillel Society held that “the system of proportional representation makes for social disintegration and the fragmentation … of the electorate… Hence the prevalence of violent, abusive propaganda and of extremist destructive attitudes. Irresponsibility is encouraged among small political groups who can never hope to form a Government of their own and whose political excuse for existence is to blackmail the big parties into a maximum of concessions to their sectional interests in return for parliamentary support. This does not encourage parties and politicians to think and act in terms of national responsibility.”

“The system of constituency elections on the other hand promotes social synthesis and integration. Only a few big parties stand any chance of surviving and their electoral success depends in large measure on their appeal to the … average voter to gain a majority of votes in every electoral district. Hence it becomes the concern of all parties to polish off extremes, to emphasize a middle-of-the-way platform, to search earnestly for common language and … constructive compromise.”

The pamphlet proposes electoral reform, which I will not go into here. Instead, let’s turn to David Ben-Gurion’s Memoirs, where he exposes the flaws of Israel’s electoral system.

Ben-Gurion notes that when the People’s Council discussed this issue in November 1948, Dr. Altman of Herut “opposed a single constituency for the whole country with every voter choosing from a list of 120 candidates, with most of whom he was completely unfamiliar.” Ben-Gurion agreed with Altman’s criticism that proportional representation would lead to

… fragmentation of the nation’s forces and artificial conflicts. The public would have no influence on choosing the candidates, since the lists would be drawn up at party headquarters. The system would cut any connection between the voter and his representative, who would be dependent on his party leadership rather than on those who elected him and whom he would not even know. The resulting party fragmentation would result in many parliamentary factions uniting to form a dominant majority, not on the basis of a common program but merely to divide up positions of influence and the national budget.

Regional elections alone could prevent this, as the deputy would know [and be accountable to those] who had elected him … To win a majority, the candidate would have to gain the approval of a majority of voters in his own constituency and concentrate on the problems of that majority. Instead of a multiplicity of parties and election lists, a constituency system would promote national unity and an organic link between the voter and his legislative representative.

Ben-Gurion states in the sequel that Altman’s apprehensions were fully borne out after the elections to the First Knesset. There were twenty-one party lists, twelve of which passed the one percent threshold but none had a majority.

Thus there came into being a large number of small parties whose programs held no interest for the majority of the nation, which was denied the basic democratic right of a real choice of the government. The interests of the parties, as conceived by the leadership of their Central Committees, became paramount.* The first two elections prove to anyone who could see and was concerned for the country’s fundamental interests that the national proportional system distorted the principle of elective representation and resulted in excessive multiplication of parties. This tended to division in a nation that needed unity above all.

Since the Government as well as the Opposition consists of rival parties, neither, says Ben-Gurion, “is a partnership based on truth and good will.” This educates the public in national irresponsibility.

Well folks, this, in brief, is the story of Israel’s dysfunctional system of government which I have been harping on for longer than I like to remember. If you ask, what can you do to change this system? Well, allow me to suggest that you support the Foundation for Constitutional Democracy. We’re the only organization that not only has a comprehensive plan of action based on Jewish and democratic principles, But unlike one or two other organizations that have adopted part of our program, we publicly emphasize the dire need of two basic reforms: constituency elections and a unitary executive or presidential system of government.

You can learn more about this from Jewish Statesmanship—perhaps the only book that unites Torah and political science.

* Party primaries do not fundamentally correct this oligarchic state of affairs.