Why does Israel have so many political parties — and what’s wrong with that?
Israeli society is extremely diverse, with multiple political divisions that run along ideological, ethnic and religious fault lines. Israel also has an extreme proportional system of government, which grants representation in the Knesset to any party that clears a 3.25% threshold in general elections that take place in a single, nationwide district.
The result of these two factors is political fragmentation. On the one hand, this is a good thing because minorities in Israel are adequately represented in parliament. However, representation comes at a price in terms of political stability and good governance.
In order to form a coalition in Israel, the prospective ruling party has to attain a majority of at least 61 seats out of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Because of the proliferation of political parties, this task is impossible without cobbling together an alliance of several smaller parties.
In the last elections, held in 2015, ten electoral slates (representing 16 political parties) passed the electoral threshold and made it into the Knesset. The largest party (Likud) won a mere 30 seats — a quarter of the seats in the parliament and less than half the majority needed to form a coalition. It took Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seven weeks to form a coalition — made up of 21 ministers coming from six parties, each of which has its own worldview, constituency and demands.
This fragmentation has been typical of election results of the last several decades. As a consequence, Israeli prime ministers worry constantly about political stability, and sometimes cater more to the demands of small sectoral parties than to the national interest.
“The current system grants small parties disproportionate power, leads to excessive preoccupation with coalition management, does not provide strong incentives for creating an effective opposition, and leads to the allocation of over-sized budgets to sectoral interests,” says Prof. Gideon Rahat, Senior Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
His solution? “We need to create a system of incentives which will solidify the political system into two main blocs. The task of forming the next government should be given to the head of the largest faction. This will encourage politicians to forge alliances before the elections, and will encourage citizens to cast their vote for the largest electoral list.”