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Op-Ed: Israel must address flawed electoral system

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — The predicament created by Israel’s recent Knesset elections  does not reveal any new problems in Israel’s electoral system; it simply underscores the problems everyone knows already are there.

The problems have created a dire situation. Clearly the Israeli electoral system has failed again, and the underlying problems of why it happened need to be addressed immediately.

The new political map shows the immense difficulty in establishing a coalition government, especially one that will be able to lead the country through these challenging times. Even worse, the Knesset represents so many fragmented groups that it is extremely difficult to legislate effectively.

Politicians on the campaign trail often promise electoral reform, but those promises have gone unfulfilled.

If the current Knesset does not make government and electoral reform a top national priority, a shaky coalition will push Israelis into yet another election in less than two or three years, and again it will be impossible to establish a stable government.

Various solutions to Israel’s problems of government instability already have been proposed.

In 2005, the president’s Commission for the Examination of the Structure of Governance in Israel was created to propose recommendations to remedy the problem. The commission, headed by Professor Menachem Magidor of Hebrew University, spent 15 months researching alternatives to Israel’s current system.

In its final report, the commission recommended that regional elections be held to elect half of the Knesset’s members. The idea is that if 50 percent of Knesset members are elected in regional elections, there will be a stronger tie between representatives and voters, and the Knesset members will be directly accountable to their constituents.

Some Israeli officials have proposed transitioning to a presidential system. Politicians and scholars, however, are deterred by the risk of concentrating too much power in the hands of a single person.

Increasing the threshold necessary for Knesset representation to 5 percent of the popular vote is a middle-of-road reform that would reduce the number of smaller parties in the Knesset and thus promote and strengthen bigger parties. Another worthwhile reform would be creating a perennial budget to eliminate the “circus of extortion” that plagues Israeli coalition negotiations.

During a meeting with the members of the Economic Forum for Government Stability of the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni said that she does not reject the transition to a presidential system. However, she cautioned that Israel would need to make sure the appropriate checks and balances were in place and that there would be the possibility of forcing the president to step down, in extreme situations, before the conclusion of his or her four-year term.

Whatever solutions are implemented, Israel needs to reform the electoral system and stabilize the government as soon as possible. The only way to do this is for the larger parties to agree to work together in creating new legislation to secure government stability.

(Izak Parviz Nazarian is the founder of The Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel.)

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