Proportional representation used to be blamed for the collapse of the Weimar Republic: Too much fragmentation crippled effective majority government. Israel adopted proportional representation in 1948, but in order to avoid what happened in Germany, the Israelis set a 1 percent threshold for a party list to enter the Knesset. The founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, later pressed for regional “first past the post” races on the British-American model. At the time, that would have guaranteed a huge majority, perhaps an everlasting majority, for his socialist Mapai party. But Ben-Gurion never got his wish. For twenty-nine years this did not make a crucial difference. Though Mapai never won a majority, it dwarfed its rivals and had the freedom to choose its junior coalition partners, thus dominating Israeli political life.
Eventually, the right-of-center Likud bloc emerged from the wilderness. The election of Menachem Begin in 1977 and his reelection in 1981 set the stage for decades of competitive elections. With tight elections, the original limit of 1 percent proved too low to prevent individual or small groups from holding the government hostage. By the 1990s political science experts and activists thought they had a solution: Have the prime minister chosen directly by the people, they reasoned, and immune from being brought down in the Knesset by a simple vote of no confidence. That would protect against the extortion of tiny factions, and they would wither away. This reform was instituted, but the Israeli people had a different idea. Voters indeed cast their ballots for the prime minister they wanted, as the experts had wisely planned. Then, unhindered by calculations about voting strategically to ensure their favored candidate would gain a parliamentary majority, they felt free to support their favorite sectorial party for the Knesset. The niche parties had a field day. Netanyahu in 1996, and Ehud Barak three years later, became prime minister without firm parliamentary support. Each quickly lost office, and the old system was restored.
Today the Likud bloc has become the dominant and “natural” party of government, in coalition with other right-wing or religious Jewish parties. The once hegemonic left now functions at the margins; centrist parties, serving in the government or opposition, have come and gone without reversing the rightward drift of the Jewish electorate. Yet the combination of instability and inertia due to the multi-party Knesset continues.
In 2015 we saw the most recent attempt to raise the threshold for getting seats in the Knesset, this time to 3.25 percent. It was hoped that this would be enough to force some of the small parties at the fringes to unite or perish; enough, it was also hoped, to have the same effect on the Arab parties. In the April 2019 elections, the Blue and White party, a new centrist alignment, gained a respectable thirty-five seats in the 120-member Knesset but fell far short of organizing a working majority. Likud and its usual partners won a solid majority of the popular vote. However, the new Israeli election law and its higher bar for parliamentary seats denied representation to some of these customary allies on the right, leaving the ostensible victor, Prime Minister Netanyahu, fatally dependent on the small parties that did get in. One of the politicians he had trouble with was Avigdor Lieberman, leader of a Russian immigrant-based party. Lieberman did not resolve his differences with the Orthodox. Hence Netanyahu failed to form his government and the result is the September redo of the April elections.
We will soon discover how this next chapter in Israeli politics works out. It is an open question whether Netanyahu will continue as Israel’s leader, or whether the peculiarities of the Israeli electoral system will help end his lengthy rule. It will take longer to learn how these developments affect Israeli policy, the Middle East, and the world. We can, however, reflect on the implications for democracy of the peculiarities of Israeli electoral law and its recent changes.
An irony of this story is the fallibility of experts. This is especially true of foreigners who have advised on Israeli political debates. The European experts I have met seem deficient in their knowledge of local reality and too heavily swayed by the hopes of the Israeli partisans who cultivate them. So they have endorsed proposals intended to consolidate a two-party system, which has the prestige of the American and British precedent. This grand project is also, I suspect, promoted by some to help the Israeli left. Yet it has engendered exactly the opposite consequences, ones that could have been predicted by non-experts on the ground.
The more important question is whether any electoral system, however cleverly devised, can render invisible, as if by magic, deep social and political divides. In Israel’s early years, despite the flaws of proportional representation, anything else would have been disastrous for Israeli democracy. Under the “Anglo-Saxon” system, religious Jews, Arabs, and non-socialist secular Jews would have been without a national voice in a parliament dominated by the left. Proportional representation made coalition government a virtual necessity. It led to an unwieldy system, but it was one well-suited to maintaining unity in a potentially fractious society populated with lots of uncompromising idealists and zealots, to say nothing of men who only recently served in paramilitary formations in order to throw off British rule and secure independence.
It is noteworthy that Ben-Gurion, the champion of regional representation, preferred to form his governments with the Orthodox Zionists and the bourgeois centrists rather than exclusively or primarily with the Marxist parties to his left. Doing so was certainly a cagey political move. It enabled him to “divide and dominate” the smaller parties and made it easier for Israel to align with the West. But Ben-Gurion was a statesman, and a significant motivating factor for this willingness to forgo the ideological uniformity was his recognition that a united, hegemonic Israeli left would have disenfranchised and fatefully alienated the politically marginal Jewish groups. In those years, voters for the junior Orthodox partners or the other parties that Ben-Gurion co-opted or ostracized may have resented Mapai hegemony and Ben-Gurion’s autocratic tendencies. And in any event, everyone was displeased with one or another of the compromises that kept the country together in those years. Looking back, however, we should be thankful, not resentful. The disgruntled Jewish factions were part of the nation, biding their time for decades until they finally got their chance to rule. Israel survived, and so did the antipathies of yesteryear.
The American and British systems were once esteemed because they got things done. In parliamentary Britain, the majority party proposes legislation and disposes. The American system does not allow this degree of concentration of power. Checks and balances among the branches of government, and between states and federal government, prevent hasty action, while the presidency’s executive power protects against paralysis. And so the political theorists champion one or another system as the key to effective democratic governance. But this seems implausible. In all likelihood, the American and British political cultures were vigorous and efficient because debates took place in a powerful and extensive cultural consensus. It is not the system of government that makes the greatest difference; it is the social solidarity among a country’s citizens.
Recent events suggest the primacy of consensus over electoral mechanics. In today’s Great Britain, for example, a deep divide over Brexit has paralyzed the government. It’s easy to blame Theresa May, but it’s not clear that any leader can be effective at the present moment, for within the large parties themselves there seem to be unbridgeable gaps. Predictably, there are calls for technocratic solutions. Even as I write, there is a clamor for change in the electoral system in Great Britain or in the way the prime minister is nominated, as if the right fiddling with procedure can compensate for the loss of consensus on such a central issue as national sovereignty. One hardly needs to catalogue the seemingly endless number of issues, including immigration, social policy, foreign affairs, and even religion, that feed increasingly intense and uncompromising partisanship in the United States. Here, too, we hear proposals that promise to make democracy bloom by changing the electoral system. Some call for the elimination of the Electoral College.
There can be no doubt that the details of an electoral system affect political reality. The mechanisms for nomination, election, and representation in government amplify and mute some of the voices in the public square. Proportional representation gives smaller factions more power than a winner-take-all electoral system. This has consequences for both policy and morale. But the effects are limited, and no manipulation of the voting system, however clever or well-intentioned, can get around deep-seated differences in a sharply divided country. More important, no tinkering with election laws can repair those divisions and forge a new, unifying consensus. In the end, the schemes of experts cannot substitute for the talents of true statesmanship and the spirit of the people.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva College and is editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.