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Wanted in Israel: electoral reform

A policeman votes in Israel's national elections on Feb. 10, 2009, in the settlement of Nokdim. (Brian Hendler)

A policeman votes in Israel’s national elections on Feb. 10, 2009, in the settlement of Nokdim. (Brian Hendler)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — David Ben-Gurion was the first Israeli prime minister to seek electoral reform, when the first Knesset convened in 1949.

Sixty years later, Israelis are hoping the deadlock prompted by Israel’s most recent election — in which Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud are competing to form governing coalitions — might finally spark change.

"It’s a window of opportunity," Gidi Rahat, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and expert on electoral reform, told JTA. "It’s possible that the only thing that would get the coalition Netanyahu wants with the centrist parties would be the excuse that they are entering the government in order to make reform."

The possibility that Netanyahu will lead the next government, even though his Likud Party finished behind Kadima, is part of the conundrum posed by the confusing results of last week’s election. Kadima scored 28 seats to Likud’s 27, but Likud is part of a right-wing bloc that has an absolute majority in the 120-seat Knesset, making Netanyahu at least as likely a candidate for Israel’s top job as Livni.

"This has all the bad features: They are tied and they are small,” Asher Arian, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said of Israel’s leading political parties. “There is nothing worse.”

Israel’s system of government always has been particularly unruly. Parties in Israel win seats according to how much of the popular vote they win. While this may be one of the few systems in the world based purely on proportional representation, it leads to the headache of small, special-interest parties that can — and do — bring down governments if their interests are not met.

The system also has made it difficult for governments to get things done.

As historically larger political parties continue to shrink, the calls for reform and more stable and effective government are growing. Kadima captured just 22 percent of the Feb. 10 vote, making it Israel’s smallest winner in history.

Reform proponents would like the Knesset to consider several measures. They include:

* Automatically making the head of the largest party prime minister. Under the current system, the party leader able to assemble a Knesset majority coalition becomes prime minister.

* Raising the minimum threshold for parties to be elected to the Knesset to 5 percent of the popular vote. Currently the minimum is 2 percent.

* Making at least half of the Knesset’s 120 seats representative of regional districts. This would make lawmakers directly responsible to constituents for the first time. Under the current system, voters elect nationwide parties, most of whose slates of candidates are chosen in internal party primaries.

Despite the clamor for change, it could be little more than wishful thinking, experts caution.

"Electoral reform is a rare phenomenon, and it happens only when very determined reformers use opportunities like the one they have now,” Rahat said.

Among those leading the call for change is Gidon Doron, a political science professor at Hebrew University who formed a party that ran in the recent elections with the single mission of promoting electoral reform. The party received less than 1,000 votes.

Doron said the idea wasn’t for his party, called The Israelis, to win, but to draw attention to the idea of reform. Doron traces Israel’s current governing woes to the 19th century and the founding of the modern Zionist movement.

"Because they tried to speak for the entire Jewish people but were in actuality only about 1 percent of the Jews, they devised a very generous system of representation," he said.

At the time Israel was founded, there were plans to write a constitution that would rework the fractious system. But that has yet to happen, in part because it’s so difficult to have Israel’s disparate political parties agree on fundamental tenets.

The most dramatic electoral reform to be instituted to date was a law for the direct election of the prime minister in the 1990s. The move was intended to consolidate power with the larger parties, but it backfired when voters split their ballots — casting one for a prime minister from a large party and another for Knesset representation for one of the smaller parties. Even though the law was repealed, the trend toward smaller parties has continued.

The average lifespan of an Israeli government in recent years has been 2 1/2 years, and the average appointment of a minister is just a year-and-a-half. Israel has held five national elections in the past 10 years.

"You cannot plan when you know the lifespan of a government is so short,” Doron said.

Like many Israelis, Doron wants to see a "professional government" in which ministers are appointed to posts on the basis of their professional expertise, not political considerations. Others say ministers should give up their Knesset seats once they are appointed to the Cabinet, so they can focus on their ministerial work.

Arian says regional representation in the Knesset is critical, though it’s not a panacea.

"It’s very good, especially psychologically, because it gives the sense of change and connection with the politicians,” Arian said. “But it does not necessarily lead to greater stability or greater accountability.” Nevertheless, he called it “a long overdue reform.”

Rahat recommends a two-tiered system in which 90 seats would go to 16 multi-member districts and an additional 30 seats would be allocated to parties according to their share of votes nationwide.

Acknowledging the difficulty of change, Doron says there’s still cause for optimism.

"Remember, it’s a new country,” he said. “You can plan it."

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