One politician's campaign NOT to reform the political system

Is Israel’s electoral system just fine the way it is?

Days before Israel votes, soon-to-be ex-MK Einat Wilf, who has political science degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, offers a near-heretical thesis

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Einat Wilf addresses the Knesset, October 15, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Einat Wilf addresses the Knesset, October 15, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

About 10 years ago, when Einat Wilf was Shimon Peres’s foreign policy adviser, she witnessed countless conversations he had with world leaders. They all had enormous respect for Israel’s elder statesman, who at the time was vice prime minister, and enjoyed his analysis of international and Middle East affairs. But for one particular issue he routinely failed to arouse his guests’ sympathies: when he complained about Israel’s flawed electoral system.

“Imagine having to try to get anything done with 12 parties in parliament; it’s impossible!” Peres once told Francois Hollande, who today is president of France, Wilf recalls in her new book. The situation in Paris wasn’t much better, Hollande retorted. “Nothing ever gets done in France without a revolution! The only way we are ever able to accomplish anything is by placing guillotines in our town squares,” the French socialist leader said.

Einat Wilf addresses the Knesset, October 15, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Einat Wilf addresses the Knesset, October 15, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A similar exchange occurred between Peres and Barack Obama, then a junior senator, Wilf writes. “After a wide-ranging conversation in which the senator sat absorbed, Shimon Peres proceeded to detail the failings of the Israeli system with its 12 parties. Barack Obama listened coolly and responded calmly, ‘Oh, but we have 12 parties too — they just all happen to be within the Democratic Party…’ ”

The demand for a thorough reform of Israel’s electoral system — in which currently any party that garners more than 2 percent of the vote enters parliament, ostensibly yielding unstable governments held hostage by small and avaricious sectoral factions — seems to be one of the few issues on which almost all Israelis agree. But Wilf, an outgoing member of parliament for Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Atzmaut (Independence) party, which is not competing in the January 22 elections, is trying to convince the Israeli public that, actually, no such reform is needed.

In the new 165-page book, “It’s Not the Electoral System, Stupid! Or: Why the Israeli Electoral System Is No Worse Than Others and Should Not Be Changed,” the soon-to-be ex-MK engages in an eye-opening study of comparative politics that challenges the accepted notion that things would be so much better if only Israel would amend its voting process.

Wilf does not claim the current electoral system is perfect or without serious flaws. “I’m only arguing that it’s no worse than other systems, and that in order to deal with problems that we do have, we have to deal with them directly rather than by hoping that there’s a shortcut.”

The Jewish people’s “insane idea” to revive their sovereign country, after millennia of statelessness and in the middle of a hostile region, comes with many question marks, she agrees. Key questions include how to manage Jewish-Arab relations, and what role Judaism should play in public life. “But do we really think any of these problems would be easier or simpler in any other electoral system? That’s really not a serious thought.”

“The gist of the argument is, to use the academic term, that all electoral systems in democracies suck equally,” Wilf told The Times of Israel this week, in a café in her native Jerusalem. “Reforming an electoral system is heavy surgery. To engage in that, only to discover at the end of the process that yes, we got rid of the problems of the current system, but in the process we acquired new ones, not to mention the problems that emerge from the process of the reform itself — this is a perfect example of an exercise in futility.”

During her four years in the Knesset, Wilf, 42, remained mostly unknown to the Israeli public. In terms of academic credentials, she beats all 119 other outgoing MKs, with a BA in Government and Fine Arts from Harvard, an MBA from INSEAD in Paris and a PhD in Political Science from the University of Cambridge. But still, to many uneducated ears, and even to the minds of many scholars, her thesis sounds altogether counterintuitive. How could anyone seriously believe Israel’s electoral system is okay the way it is?

A ballot box for the upcoming Israeli election (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
A ballot box for the upcoming Israeli election (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Conventional wisdom is that Israel’s governments are inherently weak, constrained by a multi-party system that allows small groups with narrow interests to blackmail larger parties in need of a stable majority. To this end, it is often suggested to make certain changes to Israel’s Basic Laws, which would ostensibly strengthen larger parties, such as raising the electoral threshold and legislating that the largest party in the Knesset automatically forms the government. Such measures, proponents say, will force smaller lists to merge with larger ones, creating a less-unwieldy party landscape enabling easier coalition building and more stable governments.

Yisrael Beytenu, the list of former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, has long made electoral reform a key cause. In 2006, the party submitted a bill proposing a sweeping reform. It did not pass, but the party continues to lament that Israel’s electoral system “is a formula for political paralysis.” Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party rallies against the “flawed” system that enables small parties to engage in the “shameful” practice of forcing the government to do their will. This is also why no government has been able to pass a law that would compel Haredim to enlist in the army, although the majority of Israeli voters support such legislation, many advocates of reform argue.

Right after January 22’s elections, the Israel Democracy Institute, the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, and the Yesh Sikui organization plan to embark on a campaign to urge all parties to support their proposal for far-reaching electoral reform.

The groups want to raise the electoral threshold to 3 percent (Yesh Atid wants 6%, Yisrael Beytenu 10%), and to have the largest party automatically form the government, even if that leads to a minority government. Another proposed reform includes dividing Israel up into 17 districts and have half of the MKs elected regionally.

“Our reform is a means to an end: We want to have two big parties, where the one that wins the elections should be the leader of a stable coalition and govern,” said Arye Carmon, the founder and head of the Israel Democracy Institute.

But according to Wilf, and others who believe in the status quo, these efforts are utterly misguided. Advocates of a reform may have different reasons for their views, she argues, but they all err in believing that Israel’s system is in need of reform because it is unstable.

Believe it or not, Wilf says, the Israeli political system is actually very stable.

In her book, Wilf differentiates between different kinds of stability. The most important is democratic stability. There are only 23 countries in the world that have been “continuously democratic since 1948,” without civil wars or suspended or overruled elections, she writes. “Israel is one of them.”

Wilf’s second test of stability is the frequency of elections. Common wisdom has it that Israelis are heading to the polls all the time. But the truth is that there have been 18 Knesset elections since 1949 — an average of one election every three-and-a-half years. Before Israel embarked on partial electoral reform in the 1990s (with a separate vote for prime minister, which failed spectacularly and was quickly reversed), Israelis headed to the polls on average once every 46 months.

MKs at work, October 15, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MKs at work, October 15, 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

According to Wilf, that botched reform of the 90s is responsible for the relatively frequent elections that followed during the last two decades. “What I find amazing is that many of the arguments for electoral reforms use data from the period of increased instability that emerged as a result of the effort for electoral reform,” she said. “We’re now finally getting over the hangover of the electoral reform. And you can see — we’re going to elections after four years.”

OK, advocates of electoral reform might say, there may have been only 18 parliamentary elections. But the next government will be Israel’s 33rd — and that’s because the system is inherently unstable and governments fall all the time. But Wilf says a look at the history books shows that most fallen governments stumbled over technical issues and were often reestablished with the same prime minister and an identical coalition.

“The US, the UK and Israel all have three very different systems. But from 1948 until the present, all had the same number of prime ministers or presidents: 12,” Wilf said.

Since Israel’s establishment, there was only one successful no-confidence vote, in 1990. And even that one wasn’t really successful, because the opposition wasn’t able to create an alternative government, and so Yitzhak Shamir stayed in power. “There is no comparative problem of stability,” she asserted.

What about the claim that the current system allows small-interest groups to blackmail the larger parties? Could a reform strengthen larger parties that represent the majority, thus preventing small lists from pushing through their narrow interests?

For Wilf, who will leave the Knesset next month — but says she will remain involved in public life — the answer is a resounding No.

“All government systems are based on negotiations,” she posits. “If you look at what Obama had to do to pass his health reform and what Israel had to do to pass its health reform about 30 years ago, we come out as a model of lean effectiveness. Because many people don’t realize that in the American system you don’t have two parties, you have 535 parties. Each one has to be negotiated with personally; it has its own interests to serve.” Congress has a total of 535 voting members: 435 in the House of Representatives and 100 senators.

“The notion that you can somehow do away with interests, with negotiations, is by definition a nondemocratic idea,” according to Wilf. Israel doesn’t have more parliamentary wheeling and dealing than other democracies; it’s just “more in your face” than elsewhere. If a reform were to force smaller parties to merge with larger parties, negotiations would merely move from over the table to under the table, she believes.

“Deal with it; it’s the essence of democratic politics,” she added, theorizing that small-interest groups thrive as long as society tolerates their ideas. In Israel, it’s the Haredim who often have it their way, despite being a minority. In the US, the National Rifle Association or the pro-Israel lobby exerts tremendous influence — despite not representing mass movements. What they all have in common, Wilf says, is that they operate under an “umbrella of passive sympathy.”

Wilf agrees that Haredi interests are overrepresented in the Knesset, but argues that it’s not the system’s fault. “It’s because they are mobilized, they are disciplined, they are organized and they are typically single-issue.” Haredi groups wouldn’t disappear if there was a two-party system. They would organize into the Haredim of party A and the Haredim of party B to make certain their interests are secured, regardless of who’s in power, she says.

Therefore, Wilf says she’ll keep on telling people what they don’t want to hear: “There are no easy solutions. You want to fight the Haredim? Be as organized, as disciplined as they are. Sorry guys, nothing less will do.”

Some proponents of electoral reform in Israel dream of a presidential system similar to that of the US. Yet, most presidential systems are very unstable, Wilf and other political scientists interviewed for this article agree. And even those that do work, such as the one in Washington, are actually very weak.

“In a presidential system, usually the executive is very weak compared to a prime minister in a multi-party system,” said Avraham Diskin, a leading Israeli scholar on comparative politics and electoral systems. After World War I, US president Woodrow Wilson established the League of Nations but couldn’t join it because of opposition from Congress, he recalled.

“In the 20th century, about 50 percent of suggestions made by the president were accepted by Congress. In Israel, over 90 percent” of the prime minister’s policies are implemented, he said.

‘Politicians are not supposed to be effective. They are supposed to have to fight with many pressure and opposition groups on the way to implement their vision’

Examples of the White House’s weakness abound even today. One of Obama’s first actions as president was signing an order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Four years on, it is still operating.

“Politicians are not supposed to be effective,” Wilf says. “They are supposed to have to fight with many pressure and opposition groups on the way to implement their vision. Because, in a democracy, the idea is not that someone comes to power and says, ‘Let there be light,’ and there is light. We don’t want that. People always want effective leadership — until they get it and it’s from the other side.”

Another concept some Israelis — and especially those who immigrated from large federal systems such as the US or Canada — want to import is regional representation, as they feel that the current proportional system leaves them without any one politician they can hold accountable.

But a small country like Israel doesn’t need such a system, Wilf posits. After all, even a citizen in a remote area of the country could reach the house of a handful of Knesset members after a relatively short drive. Regional systems give voters the illusion of closeness to their elected officials, but in the end all politicians are beholden to their party, she argues, adding that Congressmen vote with their party 80-95 percent of the time.

Having a Congressman in your backyard does not guarantee good politics and voter satisfaction, according to Wilf. Although Congress has an incumbency rate of 90 percent, only 14 percent of Americans say they trust their lawmakers, she said. “It’s simply a different system. There’s no evidence on effectiveness, accountability, on a sense of trust or being pleased that regional systems are more superior than proportional ones.”

Of course, Wilf’s arguments will not convince everyone. The Israel Democracy Institute’s Carmon, one of the country’s most avid supporters of electoral reform, called “It’s Not the Electoral System, Stupid!” a “ridiculous book… full of mistakes” that doesn’t accurately describe Israel.

Israel Democracy Institute president Arye Carmon (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Arye Carmon (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The book avoids “the crisis the political situation here is in,” he claimed, asserting that Wilf stands alone with her views. “No one, but really no one, would argue that [electoral] reform is not needed,” he said. People might argue about the details, he allowed, but “she’s the only one” who opposes a major overhaul.

But Wilf is not entirely alone. A number of scholars, politicians, and others who read her book said they were convinced by her arguments.

Diskin, the Israeli expert on comparative politics, has argued for a long time that Israel’s system, while not perfect, is good enough to allow citizens to stay away from reforms that risk making things worse.

“I don’t think that Einat Wilf really knows much about [the science of electoral systems], but at least she has the appropriate instincts, and because of that I’ll say that her general tendency is the correct one,” he said. Most people who do advocate for electoral reform don’t really understand how the system works, he posited. “They propose reforms that are really counterproductive.”

But if it is so obvious that the current system is good the way it is and should not be tinkered with, why do people continue to call for electoral reform?

Wilf’s answer is simple: for think tanks and professors, academic reputation and fundraising interests are at stake. And for politicians such as Lapid and Liberman, Israel’s electoral system is an easy target.

“Who is going to oppose it? What interest or pressure group will fight you? You aren’t fighting the electric company’s monopoly,” she said. “It’s very simple and attractive — you’re offering people the specter of simple solutions to complicated problems. There’s a million-dollar market for diet pills. People want to believe that you can take a pill and lose weight. Does it work? No.”

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