Everybody complains about Israel’s electoral system. But it works
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AnalysisA counter-intuitive defense of our endlessly maligned system

Everybody complains about Israel’s electoral system. But it works

Especially after this year’s political shenanigans, the chaotic, tribal electoral system gets a bad rap; it is also the source of Israel’s strength, solidarity and democracy

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a conference of his Likud party in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a conference of his Likud party in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Last month, the stubbornness of one man dragged Israel to an unprecedented second election in a single year.

But which man? Some blamed Avigdor Liberman, the chairman of the Yisrael Beytenu party, whose demands in coalition negotiations on issues like the Haredi draft put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an impossible position. Others insisted the fault lay with Netanyahu, who, having failed to cobble together a coalition by the May 29 deadline, chose to force a new election instead of surrendering his premiership to another MK.

But for most observers of Israeli politics at home and abroad, it was Israel’s electoral system itself that came in for the worst of the criticism. It is a system in which tiny five-seat parties (like Yisrael Beytenu) can seemingly force their will on a ruling party, and bring about the dissolution of a newly elected parliament. Indeed, small sectoral parties have for decades held an outsize role in policymaking and budget decisions because of a coalition system that leaves larger parties dependent on them for their parliamentary majority.

Likud, Israel’s ruling party for the past decade across four consecutive elections, was reduced last month to whining helplessly about Liberman’s puny faction, pronouncing it “leftist” and subversive. Even the centrist Blue and White party, which had won in the latest kerfuffle a rare redo of an election it just lost, was annoyed. After Liberman suggested earlier this month that he would support a unity coalition of Likud and Blue and White following the second race in September, sources in the party quipped in undisguised frustration, “Better late than never.” Here was a 35-seat party bitter at not having been the first choice of a five-seat faction.

There is a great deal to the criticism, and many prime ministers who would agree that the country’s electoral system makes it notoriously difficult to govern. The first Rabin government was felled in 1977 in large part because of Haredi parties’ anger over El Al flights on Shabbat. The right often complains that the Oslo peace process was only approved in the Knesset through Arab and Haredi votes and/or abstentions — that is, that the current system allows questions of existential significance for the entire body politic to be decided by minority groups that in some important ways do not always have the majority’s wellbeing at heart. Ungovernable, with the majority always dependent on the whims of various minorities, and indecisive when it comes to the fundamental questions of public life, from what to do with the West Bank to civil marriage and education reform — that’s the sad reputation of Israel’s much-maligned system of government.

Indeed, the voting method itself, with Knessets elected via nationwide party lists that closely mirror the cultural, ethnic and religious divides in Israeli society, seems to exacerbate Israelis’ tribal politics rather than dissipate it.

A tray of ballot slips at a voting booth in Israel’s parliamentary election on April 9, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But there is more to Israel’s electoral system than meets the eye. It doesn’t just magnify the tribal divides; it allows Israeli society to mediate and manage them in ways that help prevent political violence. It forces majorities to pay heed to minorities — sometimes too much, sometimes not enough, but the simple fact that Haredim, religious-Zionists, Sephardi Jews, Russian-speakers, and so on and so forth all get a seat at the table, to the boundless frustration of prime ministers who resent the political juggling act this entails, has shaped some of the best features of Israeli society, from its cohesion to its very democracy.

Tribes

At the ballot box, Israelis are tribal. How an Israeli votes correlates more with their grandparents’ country of origin than with their most obvious socioeconomic interest. Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, hailing from the Arab and Muslim worlds, vote for the political right by a landslide. Ashkenazi Jews of European extraction lean dramatically to the left. Russian speakers lean heavily to the right. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, themselves divided politically into Ashkenazi and Sephardi camps, each with its own parties, school systems and distinct political agendas, form another electoral tribe. As do the religious-Zionists, the “knit kippas” whose politics are in some ways more right-wing than the Haredim — on security and settlements, for example — and in others more liberal — on religious and social questions.

Thus in the 2015 elections, in the southern city of Beersheba, heavily Sephardi and with a large Russian-speaking minority, right-wing mainstay Likud beat left-wing mainstay Zionist Union by 38% to 12%, with rightist Russian-speaking Yisrael Beytenu taking another 12%. Meanwhile, nearby Omer, a majority-Ashkenazi town that is also, and not coincidentally, Beersheba’s wealthiest suburb, leaned decisively in the other direction (Zionist Union 38%, Likud 22%, Yesh Atid 15%).

Or in Herzliya, Israel’s high-tech capital, the Ashkenazi-majority electorate handed Zionist Union easy victories at all polling districts, except for the two easternmost neighborhoods of Yad Hatisha and Neve Amal, settled by Jews from North Africa. There, Likud took the lead.

Children watch as an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prepares to cast his vote during Israel’s parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019 in Jerusalem. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The same pattern emerged from the most recent race in April, as ToI’s Simona Weinglass has reported. Likud’s largest wins were in two almost entirely Sephardi towns, Dimona in the south (56% of the vote) and Beit She’an in the north (55%). In Jerusalem, Likud did best in Har Homa (61%) and Katamonim (56-58%), working-class, heavily Sephardi areas, the latter home to a large Kurdish Jewish community. Blue and White won in neighborhoods like Kiryat Hayovel, Beit Hakerem and parts of Rehavia — predictably the fastest-aging, most Ashkenazi parts of Jerusalem.

The figures show the same pattern everywhere, and are even starker for sectoral Haredi, religious-Zionist or Arab parties, which won in some places by literally 99% of votes — the result for United Torah Judaism in a part of the northern town of Hatzor Haglilit populated by Gur Hasidim. It won 80% of the vote in the Haredi West Bank city of Modiin Illit, one of Israel’s fastest-growing municipalities (where Shas took another 17%). In Arara, a Bedouin town in the Negev, Ra’am-Balad took 91%. Hadash-Ta’al took 80% of the northern Arab city of Umm al-Fahm.

Of course, Israel’s tribes are complex, overlapping things. Huge numbers of Jewish Israelis are children of Ashkenazi-Sephardi intermarriages. And within these categories, too, there are vast cultural differences. Yemenite Jews come from a tradition that is Mizrahi but not Sephardi, and are as culturally distinctive from, for example, Moroccan Jews, as they are from many Ashkenazi communities. Such subtleties can loom as large for ordinary Israelis as the broader categories of Ashkenazi or Sephardi. And just as one can drill down to the finer divisions, so can one point to the many ways in which Jewish Israelis experience themselves to be a unified whole, despite these fractures. These range from the civil religion surrounding national holidays, which are increasingly being observed among allegedly non-Zionist Haredi communities, to the unifying cultural touchstones of modern Hebrew, military service, the sense of being surrounded by implacable enemies, and so on.

That is, to focus on Israeli Jews’ tendency to separate in the voting booth into right-leaning Easterners and left-leaning Westerners, or into Haredim and Arabs and srugim (the knit-kippa wearers of the religious-Zionist camp) is to ignore the many subtle shades and diverse affinities that tug at Jewish Israeli identities.

Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, takes a selfie with supporters during a campaign event in Tel Aviv on April 8, 2019, a day before the election. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Yet ethnic origins remain a better predictor of voting patterns among Israelis than most other factors, and the old Ashkenazi-Sephardi left-right divide, which first propelled the right to power in the 1977 election, remains a key organizing truth of Israeli political behavior. It is the divide that cleaves Haredi politics in twain between Ashkenazi UTJ and Sephardi Shas. It is the heart of Likud’s campaign rhetoric when, for example, Netanyahu leaped on a comment last week by former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit about “mindless” right-wing voters to accuse: “They called us chahchahim [an old pejorative based on how Arabic-accented Hebrew sounded to Ashkenazi-Israeli ears], amulet-kissers [Shas handed out amulets in past elections, and an Ashkenazi artist warned during the 2015 campaign that the country was being taken over by ‘amulet-kissers’], ‘bots,’ and now ‘mindless people.’ There is no limit to the left’s condescension toward Likud voters. Our response will come at the ballot box.”

Such appeals to the Sephardi experience of marginalization at the hands of Ashkenazi elites are a pillar of Likud’s political rhetoric and identity, a conscious attempt to lay political claim to the suffering of older generations.

The meaning of Israeli politics

That political parties cling to and amplify these divides doesn’t mean they are fake or artificially engineered to serve the needs of the political moment. These identities are, for Jewish Israelis, what politics are all about.

And when measured against the needs of the fractured society it serves, Israel’s electoral system, for all its manifest flaws, delivers where it matters most: it forces cooperation among these competing groups.

An election campaign poster showing Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman over the caption “Right-wing, and secular too,” in Jerusalem on April 2, 2019, ahead of the April 9 general elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s electoral system is among the simplest in the world. The entire country is a single constituency, and it votes for just one institution: the Knesset. Israelis don’t even elect their MKs directly; they vote for a party whose actual list of lawmakers is often set by the party leader. After each election, Israel’s president, who is elected by the Knesset, then chooses a member of Knesset as prime minister-designate. That aspiring PM must then cobble together a majority coalition in the Knesset to form a government.

This system has weathered military emergencies, economic crises and ethnic fractures and strife — despite lacking the institutional complexity and clarity of more established democracies

In other words, there is scarcely a divide, and certainly nothing resembling an American-style check on power, between Israel’s parliament and its executive branch.

Imagine the system framed in American terms: there is only one elected institution, say the House of Representatives, whose majority leader automatically becomes president, meaning the House and the presidency will nearly always, by definition, agree with each other — and that unitary House is elected by the entire country in a single constituency, without states or districts, or indeed, direct voting of any kind for most of the representatives in the House.

Some ramifications become immediately apparent. For one thing, distinctive regional interests or those of small minorities (the Druze, Ethiopian Jews, etc.) are not assured representation. For another, if a majority wants to pass a manifestly unjust law, what’s to stop it?

A view of the Knesset during a vote on a bill to dissolve the parliament, on May 29, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The simplicity and uniformity in the Israeli system of government constitutes one of the better arguments in favor of a powerful Supreme Court — and may be one of the factors that led to the almost unprecedented power of the Israeli court. When all of government is a unitary legislative-executive, who looks after the minorities, reins in the excesses of populists or ensures the laws are obeyed?

The point here is not to criticize the Israeli system, but to ask a question rarely asked by its many critics at home and abroad: Why does it work at all?

That Israel’s democracy works is evident in the successes and achievements the country can show after 71 years. This system has weathered military emergencies, economic crises and ethnic fractures and strife — despite lacking the institutional complexity and clarity of more established democracies.

Indeed, Israel’s democracy has survived despite Israelis being arguably among the least democratically literate people in the free world.

This democracy was not founded in a moment of conscious philosophizing and exposition like America’s, or after 800 years of careful institution-building and tradition-setting like Britain’s. It came into being almost as an afterthought, in a polity run by East European Marxists who inherited a legal and constitutional order that was a jumble of medieval religious law and British colonial law. Even today many of the rights Israelis enjoy, from equality to free speech to the free exercise of religion, do not appear in clear and explicit fashion in Israeli law.

What scant rhetoric Israel’s founders bequeathed us on the subject — the Declaration of Independence, a few speeches, the scribblings of some ideologues — is no more robust or convincing than the democratic commitments given lip service in most of the world’s dictatorships. There was no Philadelphia Convention and no Magna Carta; no document or constitution-setting moment can explain why the millions of Jews who arrived in Israel from nondemocratic lands — most of whom experienced their first free election when casting their first ballot as Israelis — would go on to build a democratic polity that has proven more stable, free and capable of self-critique and self-improvement than many older democracies in the West.

Israel was democratic before it legislated itself so, and has remained so despite never managing to construct a coherent national consensus on what that democracy actually consists of.

Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion stands at attention as the national anthem, Hatikva, is played at the Knesset opening ceremony in 1949. (GPO/Hugo Mendelson)

And that’s the key to understanding Israel’s maddening electoral system. Measured by the sophisticated institutions of most other democracies, it is unimpressively simple and seemingly unconcerned with the chaos it seems to engender. But it isn’t meant to be measured by that standard. In this informal democracy, whose liberties flow not from legislation or clever constitutional engineering, but from a deeper and more amorphous social compromise, a kind of “grand bargain” is enabled between Israel’s many tribes that has allowed them to act as a coherent whole and to construct on such divided foundations a successful and stable polity.

And its primary means for doing that: the coalition negotiations process, the very same step after the last election that sent the country tumbling toward a new one.

In the straightforward description of the Israeli system of government provided above, few internal checks and balances are evident. But in Netanyahu’s coalition troubles we find a prime minister beset by checks no less powerful and self-limiting than in any other democracy — and it is Israel’s tribes, in this case secularist Russian-speakers facing off against Haredi factions, that force on each prime minister the complicated balancing act so often derided as the great flaw in Israeli governance.

Israelis vote their tribes, and in the coalition talks those tribes negotiate with the broader polity to ensure their interests and concerns are met. Their chief currency in that negotiation is their own commitment to the needs of the whole through the lending of their parliamentary votes to the coalition.

Thus it is in the coalition talks that Likud or Labor governments have historically taken the time to carefully listen to Haredi needs, or where Haredi politicians who insist they are not Zionists take responsibility for major agencies of government and for advancing the policies and interests of the Jewish state. It is here, too, that Sephardi voices from marginalized communities — Morocco-born David Levy, a father of 12 from the northern desert town of Beit She’an who rose to be Israel’s foreign minister, or Moshe Kahlon, the fifth of seven children of an impoverished Libyan family in downtrodden Hadera and the current finance minister — can demand and receive funding and bureaucratic attention to the long-neglected margins of Israeli society, either within the larger parties or at the helm of their own small ones. Both Levy and Kahlon served as cabinet ministers from Likud, and later as coalition partners leading smaller parties.

Left to right: Then-prime minister Menachem Begin, MK Yosef Burg and MK David Levy, in the Knesset plenum hall, 1983. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

It is in these coalition talks that parties like Yisrael Ba’aliya and Yisrael Beytenu, led by Russian-speaking immigrants, have helped advance the economic and social integration of fellow Russian speakers, and granted them a powerful independent voice in the national conversation. Israel absorbed and integrated the Russian-speaking immigration not so much via planning and policymaking but by the simple expedient of handing control over relevant state institutions — especially the ministries of housing and immigrant absorption — to the immigrants themselves through the coalition-negotiations process.

At every key point in Israel’s history — from its earliest days with David Ben Gurion’s need to cobble together a coalition of socialists and communists to rule the fragile new state, to Likud’s dramatic pivot in the 1970s toward the disempowered and neglected Sephardi Jews, to the coalition between the left and the Haredim that allowed passage of the Oslo accords, to the single-minded support of the religious-Zionist camp for Likud in the years since out of fear of a renewed peace process — it is in the coalition-building process that the Israeli electoral system has managed to successfully mediate the interests and anxieties of these political tribes in a way that ensured a more unified polity at the end of the process. It is a system focused on bringing the various groups to the table, where together they reaffirm after each round at the ballot box the bargain at the heart of Israeli liberty: that no tribe can be allowed to oppress another.

When ordinary Israelis speak of “democracy,” they don’t mean a specific set of ideas or institutions. The term is shorthand for the live-and-let-live ethos that has shaped the powerful but unofficial processes by which the power of the majority is curtailed, individual liberties are upheld and an underlying solidarity and cooperation in the Israeli body politic are ensured.

“Democracy” to Yesh Atid’s secularist voters means not being forced by religious minorities to obey religious laws. “Democracy” to Haredi party voters means access to state funds and a say in state policies that affect Haredi communities. “Democracy” to impoverished Sephardi-majority communities in the peripheries of the country means a seat at the table when budgets are disbursed, and dignity and recognition in the Israeli civic religion — such as the awarding of an Israel Prize for Literature to a Sephardi laureate, which first happened with Erez Biton in 2015, 62 years after the prize’s founding, or the study of Mizrahi Zionist writers alongside the Ashkenazi forebears of the Zionist movement in the high school history curriculum.

Poet and Israel Prize laureate Erez Biton reads Psalm 122 at the Knesset during the swearing-in of new MKs, Tuesday, March 31, 2015. (Screen capture)

Once the tribal bargaining that underlies the implicit Israeli notion of “democracy” becomes clear, the fight over, for example, the High Court of Justice makes more sense. The defenders of the court on the left know full well that it is stupendously powerful, and in fact has claimed for itself powers not shared by comparable courts elsewhere in the free world, and that calls to limit its power are therefore no mere right-wing populism. But the court is also seen by the left as a guardian of the rights and safety of those — not least the secular Ashkenazi left itself, as well as Arabs and others — who have long been absent from the coalition table, and so from the direct protections of the grand bargain.

At the same time, one is hard-pressed to find among those right-wingers demanding a weaker court any serious explanation about what might replace it as defender of the weak and marginalized (and in parliament, the opposition) in the Israeli system of government. This is not because Likud politicians are unaware that the near-unity of the legislative and executive branches presents such a problem, but because for most, their anger at the court is not really about the constitutional question of the court’s possible overstep of its defined powers, but about the prevailing sense that the court constitutes the last bastion of an aging, arrogant, privileged and exclusionary elite that has long used liberal rhetoric to launder its less noble impulse of maintaining control over the body politic without having to go to the trouble of winning elections. Whether this is a valid depiction of today’s court is up for debate; that this image of the court is a driving force for many who dislike it is indisputable.

Since Israeli democracy wasn’t born in a conscious act of constitution-making, Israelis lack a shared and coherent vocabulary for talking about their democracy. And so a debate about the High Court’s constitutional powers can become an avatar of sorts for a more pressing and virulent, though only half-stated, fight over questions of tribe, vulnerability and exclusion. It is therefore a debate of the deaf. For the left, there is too much at stake — “democracy” itself, to be sure — to give even the slightest consideration to the long-term harm that an overpowerful, almost entirely unelected court might cause to the public’s trust in the judiciary. For the right, too, there is too much at stake — they, too, usually claim to be defending “democracy” — to consider that this politically advantageous war against the political rivals of yesteryear, reified in the present-day court, might be demolishing a vital bulwark of Israeli freedom.

Finally, when radicals on left or right challenge the mainstream — such as when activist groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem publicize injustices or acts of violence toward Palestinians — they are derided and rebuked not for revealing these events, but for doing so abroad. These are activists who, in their frustration at an interminable five-decade occupation, no longer believe the Israeli political system, with its indecisiveness and endless obeisance to tribal compromises, is capable of bringing the injustice to an end. And so they reject the demands of solidarity and the promises of eventual reform, and, in the eyes of many Israelis, take to slandering Israel to a hostile and distant world.

Israeli democracy does not demand uniformity from its adherents — its very purpose is to mediate and lessen the tensions between wildly diverse cultural, religious and ethnic groups — but it does demand some basic semblance of solidarity, and struggles to tolerate those who seem not to offer it.

Thousands of Israelis take part in a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on May 25, 2019, calling to stop the proposed law to grant the premier immunity from corruption investigations. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Everywhere one turns in Israeli society, one finds this deeper, more tribal meaning of democracy, of the nature and purpose of politics, and of the roots of Israeli liberties.

There is one group, of course, that remains outside the grand bargain, that refuses in principle to sit in governing coalitions and complains from the sidelines about its continued marginalization: Israel’s Arab minority. Without minimizing the impact of long-term neglect and discrimination on the part of the Jewish side, Arab Israelis’ marginalization flows in some part also from their own refusal to participate in the coalition-building process that lies at the heart of Israel’s democratic life.

Without Arabs at the table demanding their share, the Israeli state bureaucracy must make a conscious effort to act above and beyond its built-in self-interest, to invest in Arab towns and villages without specific political pressure inducing it to do so. Such idealism and self-motivated initiative is not usually found in state bureaucracies. This is no exoneration for said neglect, of course, but only a point about the costs of refusing to take part in the bargaining.

The 21st Knesset was not dissolved merely because of Avigdor Liberman’s whims or Benjamin Netanyahu’s egotism. Both men have plentiful egos and sometimes impetuous whims, to be sure. But each also believes as a matter of personal narrative and purpose that they represent a tribe, a section of Israeli society that depends on them to deliver its interests, and through their tribe and its compromises with other coalition tribes, to represent the interests of Israeli society writ large.

The test of time

There is no question that the September 17 election was avoidable, and a very strong likelihood that the parliamentary math going into the next round of coalition negotiations will not be very different from the last round. It is entirely reasonable to complain about an unprecedented second round of general elections in a single year. But even if the specific actions chosen by the current crop of politicians were foolish or wasteful, the system itself, through which Israel’s fractured society reconciles the centrifugal demands of its competing subgroups, has stood the test of time.

It is not Israel’s halfhearted constitution that makes Israelis confident that their freedoms are safe, but rather the very social compromises that have been such a bane for so many prime ministers.

Or, put another way, the very fact that Netanyahu occasionally has trouble governing under the current system — isn’t that an excellent argument for its wisdom and value?

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