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  • Choosing and Electoral SystemIsrael Debates Reform
  • Vernon Bogdanor (bio)

The history of the Israeli electoral system illustrates the truth of the old French proverb "C'est seul le provisoire qui dure." Adopted merely as a temporary expedient, it has proved almost impossible to supplant or change. Advocated as a stopgap, it has come to yield the lowest common denominator of agreement. In theory the purest and most democratic of systems, it has often been accused of frustrating the will of the Israeli electorate. Since the early 1980s, and especially following the exceptionally close elections of 1988, when both major parties (Likud and Labor) offered lavish concessions to religious and militant parties in order to form a government, pressure has been building for electoral reform.

No one ever specifically chose the Israeli electoral system. When, in 1948, a decision had to be made with regard to the electoral system, the infant state was at war with her Arab neighbors. Her leaders were in no position to devote time to rational and calm consideration of what the electoral system should be. In any case, a new electoral system would have been extremely difficult to implement under the conditions in which Israel found herself in 1948. The system favored by Israeli independence leader David Ben-Gurion—the British "first-past-the-post" plurality system in single-member districts—would have required the delimitation of geographical constituencies in an area in which they had been hitherto [End Page 66] unknown. This was hardly possible when the boundaries of the state itself had not yet been fixed.

Therefore it was agreed that elections to the Constituent Assembly (which became the First Knesset) should use the same method as had been used in the prestatehood period for elections to the Zionist Congress and the elected assemblies of the Yishuv (the Jewish Community of Mandatory Palestine). Since membership in these bodies was purely voluntary, their electoral rules were designed to ensure the widest possible representation of Jewish opinion. The basic assumption was that no serious strand of Zionist thought, however little support it had, should be excluded from representation. The extreme form of list proportional representation (PR) that resulted may well have been suitable for a voluntary organization, but it ill fits the needs of a well-functioning modern state.

In the Israel of 1948, however, it was generally assumed that this system would only be used for elections to the Constituent Assembly, which would then proceed to choose a more permanent electoral system. What this assumption overlooked was that those who thrive under a given electoral system come to have a vested interest in preserving it, fearing that any change might hurt them and help their opponents. So it was in Israel.

The High Price of Purism

The principles of the Israeli electoral system are laid down in paragraph 4 of the 1958 Basic Law of the Knesset, which states that elections shall be "general, national, direct, equal, by secret ballot, and proportional. . . . " This section of the Basic Law cannot be changed except by an absolute, as opposed to a simple, majority of Knesset members; moreover, this absolute majority must be in place "during all stages of legislation" according to paragraph 16. The absolute-majority provision was adopted because of fears that Ben-Gurion's ruling Mapai party would seek to introduce a British-style electoral system as soon as it could, thus augmenting its advantages as the largest party by virtually guaranteeing itself an overall majority of seats in the Knesset and a complete monopoly of power.

In theory, Israel's electoral system is one of the fairest in the world. It has three main features, the first and most fundamental of which is an extremely rigid version of list PR. The parties draw up lists of candidates, and the order in which their names appear on the party list determines their relative chances of election. Voters cannot "write in" names, delete names, or change the order in which the names appear on the lists. For example, in 1992, when Likud won 32 seats in the Knesset, the winners were the first 32 people on the list, a list arranged not by the voters...


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