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A Cure for Chronic Political Instability

Election reform might be the least of President Reuven Rivlin's worries right now

I’ve often quipped to my colleagues that the bane of my professional existence is preparing a news column on a Monday that will still be relevant days later, when most readers sit down to peruse it in earnest, and for a news cycle that travels at warp speed.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, here we go again.

By the time you read this, you will know who President Reuven Rivlin tasked with the mandate to form a coalition government. As I write this piece, the first political parties are still streaming into Rivlin’s Jerusalem residence, one at a time, to inform him of their pick for who should get first crack at breaking Israel’s two-year political impasse caused by four indecisive elections.

This time, at least, Rivlin mercifully consolidated the process, confining the ritual meetings to one day instead of the customary two.

So at press time, we were faced with two major unknowns: Who would get the nod? And more importantly, could the person who gets the nod shape a viable coalition of 61 MKs or more? For a fortnight since the March 23 election, Israel’s best political minds have agonized over all of the possible political configurations, and no one can figure out how anyone could get to 61.

The bigger question is why we repeat such a miserable process when two simple steps toward election reform could solve Israel’s chronic political logjam. The first step would automatically grant the mandate to the party that won the most votes on Election Day. The second step would cancel the “law of investiture” that requires a majority of 61 to install a new government.

The main proponent of these reforms is Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a Jerusalem-based think tank and a former member of the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee from 2007 to 2013.

“The mess of the past two years could have been avoided if [these] two basic political reforms had been implemented,” Plesner noted in a blog published on the IDI website two days before the most recent election. “Such a law would eliminate the political blackmail of smaller parties, which now demand payment upfront in return for the president’s recommendation.”

A European Model

Had Plesner’s proposals been the law of the land, the Likud would have earned an automatic mandate for winning the most seats (30). There would be no need to curry favor with President Rivlin, whose ceremonial position has become more overstated with each avoidable election.

A leader of a small party, like Naftali Bennett — who won a meager 6.2% of the popular vote — could have never been so presumptuous as to demand that he become prime minister. It also would have marginalized players like Mansour Abbas of the Islamic Ra’am party, whom pundits have crowned as a potential kingmaker, even though he only eked past the threshold to get into the Knesset by a mere 20,000 votes.

Netanyahu could have rolled up his sleeves the morning after to begin formation of a minority 52-seat coalition with the two chareidi parties and the religious Zionist party.

That being said, 52 seats are far from the 61 needed to pass most important Knesset legislation. How do you rule without an automatic majority?

It’s not always easy. Ask Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who has headed a minority government in Ottawa since his October 2019 re-election. Aside from needing outside support to pass major legislation, a minority government must keep at least enough of the external parties happy enough that they don’t topple it with a vote of no confidence.

Despite the drawbacks, such a system has flourished in postwar Europe. Four years ago, Anna Bassi, an associate professor of politics at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill published research in the University of Chicago Press Journals covering a 70-year period, from 1945 to 2015 in 16 parliamentary democracies. Minority governments held control some 37.2% of the time. Today, minority coalitions rule in ten Western democracies, including in all of the Scandinavian countries, known for being political bastions of stability.

Seeking a Majority

If such a system were set up in Israel, whenever Bibi — or any successor —required an absolute majority for vital legislation, such as the budget, or judicial reforms, he would have to resort to some hard bargaining and offer some potentially painful concessions to smaller parties outside the coalition. Support on a budget vote from Labor or the Arab parties could run into the billions of shekels. There is no telling what Naftali Bennett and Gideon Saar might demand for their votes on a bill that would pare back the powers of the Supreme Court to nullify duly-passed Knesset legislation, even if they have a strong interest in them.

Plesner contends there are ample benefits for all sides, especially for the Israeli people.

“While such a government would not enjoy an automatic majority on its legislation, as is the case in the current reality, the need for ad-hoc coalitions might actually force Israeli governments to think out of the box, not march forward with a dogmatic rigidity on all issues, so that they could finally end up implementing real reforms that a majority of Israelis are yearning for,” Plesner writes.

But would it actually lead to a more stable form of government and fewer elections?

It does in Europe, says Anna Bassi of UNC: “Because external supporters would be worse off by deposing the minority government and being formateurs of alternative coalitions, the minority government is not only an equilibrium of the game but a dynamically stable one.”

Any election reform would require the Knesset to amend its Basic Laws, which is Israel’s informal version of a constitution. It would also require a majority vote, which is obviously much harder to attain under a minority coalition.

Until then, the current system remains in force. The party head tasked by President Rivlin to form the next government has many mountains to climb in the 28 to 42 days allotted by law to utilize his mandate to form a government. Election reform might be the least of his worries right now. But if Israel does head to a fifth election later this summer, it could be the most important measure that the outgoing Knesset ever passes, especially if they want to avoid a sixth election.

 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 855)

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