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Israel’s Dysfunctional System of Governance

People in Israel and abroad wonder what it is that makes politics and politicians so erratic in the Jewish state.

First and foremost the lack of a written constitution in this country, one that prescribes the powers of the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches of government. Instead, Israel has a welter of Basic Laws enacted haphazardly over the course of decades, which laws, far from being “basic,” are easily changed and so vague as to allow politicians and judges enormous latitude. Accordingly, what is called the rule of law in Israel is very much the rule of a few men. Arbitrary acts on the part of the Government are commonplace. Even the Supreme Court—precisely because it controls the appointment of its own members (!)—feels free to ignore and overturn laws enacted by Israel’s Knesset. This anarchic state of affairs allows a prime minister to pursue his own political agenda despite the law (and, in the case of Ariel Sharon, regardless of his party label).

Second, ever since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, no Labor- or Likud-led Government has ever been toppled by a Knesset vote of no confidence. The Knesset, sovereign in theory, is in practice subservient to the Government. Lacking, therefore, are institutional checks and balances. This fact allows prime ministers to ignore the Knesset even on matters affecting the borders of the State.

Third, although a large majority of Israel’s Jewish population is either orthodox or traditional, the parliamentary representation of Israel’s two major parties, Labor and Likud, has never remotely reflected the proportion of religious, traditional, and secular Jews in this country. This is a direct consequence of a very low parliamentary electoral threshold, which has enabled citizens of various religious and secular persuasions to form their own parties. The resulting multiplicity of parties in the Knesset produces a farrago of parties in the cabinet whose rivalry renders it virtually impossible for the Government to pursue, let alone for the public to discern, clear and coherent national policies.

Fourth, the existing parliamentary electoral system maximizes the power of the parties—of course those that form the Government. Contrary to the practice of 74 out of 75 countries having democratic elections for the lower (or only branch) of the legislature—the entire country constitutes a single electoral district. In this nationwide district a profusion of parties with fixed lists of candidates compete for Knesset seats on the basis of proportional representation. Since no party has ever won a majority of the popular vote—the electoral threshold is a mere 1.5%—several parties must unite after the election to form the Government. Until the Government is formed, the public is never quite certain of its composition, which gives a prime minister extraordinary leeway.

Fifth, under this system, diverse party leaders—those who top the party lists—become cabinet ministers and dominate the Knesset. Having different agendas, the parties forming the cabinet do so, as David Ben-Gurion said, “not on the basis of a common program but merely to divide up the positions of influence and the national budget.” Moreover, since Knesset Members are not individually elected by or accountable to the voters, those who become cabinet ministers can ignore public opinion with impunity—and readily do so between elections.

To clarify the issue, suppose Israel had single member, multi-district elections. This would shift power from the parties to the voters and to their personal representatives in the Knesset. The Knesset would then cease to be subservient to the Government. It would also be in a better position to curb the despotic power of the Supreme Court. By making Knesset members individually accountable to the people in constituency elections, Israel would have, for the first time, the institutional checks and balances essential to democracy and the rule of law.

As America’s founding fathers so well understood, political and judicial institutions must be designed with a clear understanding of how they may affect the vices and virtues of human nature, especially the former. There are no institutional substitutes for virtue, but Israel’s governing institutions readily magnify men vices.

In my treatise, A Discourse on Statesmanship: The Design and Transformation of the American Polity, I develop a “psychology of political forms.” There I show that the various attributes of institutions influence the character of those who wield their powers. (1) Who is eligible to vote in elections, (2) who is eligible to hold office, (3) the mode of election (or electoral laws), (4) the tenure of those elected, (5) the size of the institution, and (6) the powers of the institution will more or less influence the behavior of a country’s law-makers, administrators, and judges. The most important of these attributes is who is eligible to vote, followed by who is eligible to hold office, for these will ultimately determine who will rule and shape the character of the regime.

To avoid misunderstanding, the present writer is not contending that institutional reform alone will solve Israel’s major problems. I do contend, however, that such reform is a necessary precondition of changing the disastrous course of this country. Hence I urge those concerned about Israel’s future to study my book Jewish Statesmanship: Lest Israel Fall.

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