Op-ed: Reforms Vital to Israeli Political Stability

As the United States looks forward to a presidential inauguration, Israel is facing another general election.

A little more than a month ago, the new leader of Israel’s Kadima Party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, failed to establish a coalition government following the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The breakdown of coalition talks forces Israel into premature national elections in February, far in advance of the scheduled date in 2010.

Livni’s failure stemmed primarily from her inability to appease demands by two parties, the fervently Orthodox Shas and the Pensioners Party, which posed heavy monetary and sectarian conditions for joining her government.

Small, special-interest parties such as Shas, which holds 12 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, wield disproportionate power in the Israeli political system. Their rise in recent years has come at the expense of traditional big parties such as Labor and Likud, which have contracted to the point where they must combine with numerous smaller parties in order to form coalition governments. As a result, Israel’s political system has become highly unstable and is frequently held hostage to sectarian interests.

Livni’s troubles are symptomatic of a larger systemic affliction that has stripped three of the last four Israeli prime ministers of their ability to govern. Under Israel’s current political structure, sectarian agendas consistently trump majority interests on issues ranging from religion and state to national security. Consequently it has become impossible to formulate coherent policy or govern effectively. The political paralysis extends to the realm of foreign policy, where it has a debilitating effect on negotiations for peace.

It was not always this way.

For 47 years, political stability prevailed in Israel. The average term of the Knesset between 1949 and 1996 was nearly four years. During all but the past 13 years, successive Israeli governments led the country decisively across the shifting sands of war and peace while absorbing millions of immigrants and shepherding its citizens through major economic and social change.

In the early 1990s, effective governance ground to a halt with the introduction of the two-ballot system, otherwise known as “direct election of the prime minister.” According to this system, each citizen was eligible to vote twice: once for the prime minister and once for the party of the voter’s choice.

Relieved of the burden of having to vote for just one party, voters sent dozens of small parties into the Knesset, each reflecting the whims of narrow interest groups. As a result, the major parties shattered and the political system became paralyzed.

In 2003, the Knesset repealed the two-ballot system. But the scars of that experiment have yet to heal.

As the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual democracy index for 2008 illustrates, the public’s confidence in the political system now stands at an all-time low, with only 15 percent of Israelis expressing trust in political parties.

Faced with a new set of international crises, Israel’s leaders must act quickly to restore stability and a sense of direction to the Israeli body politic. Bold reforms are needed to bolster the parliamentary system by facilitating the emergence of large parties in the legislature and strengthening the executive branch’s ability to govern.

The to-do list for Israeli political reform is lengthy and complex, but it must begin with two fundamental changes to the electoral system that will help steer the country’s democracy toward greater stability.

First, the threshold of votes required for entrance into the Knesset must be raised to facilitate the re-emergence of two large ruling parties. Second, to strengthen the capacity of elected governments to complete four-year terms in office, the leader of the biggest party should automatically be designated on election night as the prime minister.

Other necessary reforms include the long-overdue enactment of a constitution, thereby establishing a set of binding ground rules for political change; the institution of a substantial increase in the size of the Knesset, so as to achieve a reasonable ratio of representatives per capita; the introduction of regional representation, in order to enhance accountability and representativeness; the adoption of measures to redress imbalances between the three branches of government; and the implementation of mechanisms to increase transparency within the public sector.

By facing up to the dangers inherent in the status quo, Israel’s post-election leadership can seize a historic opportunity to strengthen the nation’s political system and prepare Israel for the tough decisions that lie ahead.

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