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From Tribal to Territorial Democracy: How can Israel emerge from its political abyss?

Filed under: Israel
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 31, Numbers 3-4

The State of Israel is in an ongoing political crisis.  In the course of two years, the Israeli electorate was forced to participate and repeat four Knesset elections. During this period, despite a health crisis accompanied by an economic crisis and without an approved budget, the political system could not stabilize itself. Even with the formation of a new government, it will be based on a narrow majority. The new coalition will be thin and unstable, and the layers of political turmoil of the recent years will not disappear.

One of the proposals that come up from time to time is replacing Israel’s customary parliamentary system with a presidential system. In my opinion, this solution does not reach the deeper layers of the fissure. Changing the system with two ballots, one for the head of the executive branch and the other for the Knesset, will not solve the deep divisions inherent in Israeli society and reflected in the current political crisis. Indeed, the change to the direct election for the prime minister that was introduced starting with the 1996 election failed and, therefore, was canceled after three elections campaigns.

In this article, I would like to briefly sketch out the built-in difficulty faced by Israeli society and challenge us to think about moving in a new direction. While changing the electoral system is only one step to correcting the deep fissure, it is crucial for stabilizing the political system.

In 2015, then-Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, speaking at the Herzilya Conference, described the demographic processes that created a “new Israeli order,” consisting of “four central tribes” – secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox, Arab – whose hostility among themselves is growing. Even if the distinction is not utterly accurate to a society with ideological, religious, national, and religious rifts, the concept of tribalism fits our complex history from its beginning.

 Israeli society has been torn since its establishment. However, these rifts that once intersected have become overlapping rifts in our times in which members of one group do not share values with the other. As a result, Israel has become what is known in professional literature as a “deeply divided society.” The deep inter-sectoral mutual hostility we have witnessed since the first 2019 elections, and even during the coronavirus crisis that was supposed to bring about national unity, does not bode well for the stable continuation of the “Third Commonwealth.”

The second challenge to Israel’s political system is to deal with a process of the deterioration of the status of the Knesset, which harms the delicate balance between the three branches of government. The strengthening of the Judiciary is directly related to the deleterious image and weakness of the Legislature. This phenomenon is also manifested in government instability. Therefore, the goal should be the adoption of an electoral system that will strengthen the status of the Knesset.

I will actually begin by praising the current electoral system that served us for a long time, whose origins can be detected in the period before the establishment of the State, the period of the Yishuv, if not before. The need to mobilize the entire Jewish community without state authority during the “state on its way” forced the leadership to adopt an electoral system that would represent all shades of the Yishuv. In fact, the structure and functioning of the Jewish “community” (the Kehillah) in the various zones of the Diaspora, which had to deal with similar problems of authority without coercion, were based on recruitment to represent all community members. The State of Israel adopted this process of governance, which served a pluralistic society that had been recruited from its birth to deal with existential threats.

Contrary to the similar systems used in many European countries, there is no territorial representation in Israel’s proportional electoral system. Representation is intended to reflect the ideological shades of Israeli society. However, since it is impossible to form a government in which all the parties represented in the Knesset will participate, a coalition of parties is created based on the majority of the Knesset Members (MK). To overcome the deep divisions on the basis of religion and State and social groupings, Israeli prime ministers over the years have been wise to build broad coalitions beyond the bare minimum required to govern in a democratic society. This division of power and mobilization of various sectors has even been called “the Politics of Accommodation.” Thus, there was almost always a religious party in the government. And during the rule of parties from the Labor camp, there was also representation for the bourgeois sector. Most of the crises in these governments were over issues of religion and State. Nevertheless, it can be said that the government in Israel was stable. In times of emergency, wall-to-wall coalition governments were also formed.

In contrast, homogeneous governments in which there was no representation of parties from both sides of the dividing line were characterized by crisis instability. A prominent example is the Rabin government, formed in 1992, and which, after Shas’ departure, was based on two left-wing parties: Labor and Meretz. Toward the end of the term, the Jewish State reached the brink of civil war. The Likud government, which was formed in 2015 and was based solely on right-wing and religious parties, was ostensibly stable, but after its dissolution in 2019 came the ongoing political crisis that year that manifested in four recurrent elections. The ongoing legal case against Binyamin Netanyahu, the lack of trust in the legal system, and the attacks on major institutions in the country such as the courts, the police, and the “officials” of the Treasury are all expressions of a crisis that reflects a deep social rift.

Another setback to the current electoral system is a new phenomenon: party elections that are personal. Since 1992, we have had ballots with the name of the leader at the top of the party list. Indeed, in addition to choosing an individual instead of an ideological platform, the parties do not bother much in the campaign to present the list behind the list leader. Most factions also do not bother to build a list chosen by party membership, but the list is formed by the head of the party.

In doing so, Israel in effects elects the head of the executive branch and not the composition of the legislature. The claim that the legislature is sovereign because it represents the will of the people loses its validity. The claim that several parties hold primaries is also inaccurate. The composing of a party’s list by a small number of members gives control of the process to “voter brokers” and several “bosses” who regulate the placement of candidates on the list of party leaders. Prohibiting a voter in the general election to change the predetermined party list severely undermines the democratic process. The main casualty is the Knesset, whose legitimacy is based on the renewal of the unwritten contract between the electorate and the government in a general election every few years.

The tribal schism accompanied by the weakening of the legislature poses a danger to Israeli democracy. To be sure, the Israeli divisions to some extent remind us to what we are witnessing in the United States and expressed during the last presidential election. However, there the federal structure largely moderates the rift. The direct elections for the legislature, separate from the presidential vote, and the two Houses that make up the Congress legitimize the legislative branch. This structure is backed by the division of power between the federal government and the states that make up the Union. Moreover, one of the two houses of Congress, the Senate, is based entirely on territorial power sharing between the States in the United States. In addition, it remains to be noted that members of House represent congressional districts. 

I do not intend to recommend the American system that stems from a political culture and territorial sizes that are quite different from the Israeli one. The goal is only to understand the rationale of a completely different form of democracy, which is also currently facing a political rift. Israel’s parliamentary regime is also more similar in terms of orders of size and political culture to that of European democracies. But this is not the place for a comprehensive comparative display with European countries. I only note that in all of them, we find an expression of the territorial component of their electoral system, which, in the majority, uses proportional representation.

More than four decades ago, the renowned political scientist Prof. Daniel Elazar published a short article titled “Israel: From an Ideological Democracy to a Territorial Democracy.” Elazar was known in the United States before he immigrated to Israel as a leading authority in the field of federalism, especially American federalism. In his article, he argued that Israel was indeed marching in the direction of territorialization by transferring powers to local government. He identified federal elements in Israel’s political culture, the main one being the Jewish heritage and the federal structure of the Jewish Diaspora, especially that of American Jewry. Since the article was written at a time when the political system functioned according to a tradition of power-sharing among the parties that made up the government and a balanced division of authority between the Judiciary and the Legislature, Elazar refrained from recommending strengthening the territorial element in the electoral system.

However, Israel has since transformed from an ideological democracy to a tribal-personal political system. Today, the way to overcoming the national rifts by returning to the so-called “politics of accommodation” does not seem possible. Even if a broad government is formed, the rifts are so deep that stability does not appear possible. Netanyahu’s governments of 2013 and the last of 2020, in which there was a sharing of power between Left and Right, did not last.

We need a system of government that can heal the rifts. It is time to knead the territorial element into the electoral system.

The rationale behind adding the territorial element is a partial diversion of the “tribal” interests of voters from group allegiances to the affinity for the place of residence. While the election of representatives to the House of Representatives will continue to represent ideological obligations, it is also a commitment to promote local interests. In doing so, they moderate the view of the “other” from the same district from an enemy to one with whom it is conceivable to cooperate. The working assumption is that if an elected representative knows he/she represents a certain area of the country, he/she will be more likely to be re-elected if he/she is more independent and free of the obligations to party leaders and “discipline.” A personal connection between the electorate and the elected official will strengthen the Knesset’s position at both the public and national levels. The goal is to move from politics built entirely on identity politics to politics with a territorial component.

How can ideological orientations be merged with local concerns? The electoral systems in Europe are varied, and there is no room here to review them all. They range from the British plurality systems where “winner takes all” (the candidate with the majority goes to Parliament and the minority votes have no representation) to proportional representation systems (according to the relative strength of the candidates’ parties) combined with a territorial element.  A transition from the proportional representation system like Israel’s, which is the most representative, to the district representation like in Britain would be too drastic and unsuitable for the social composition of the Jewish State.

 If we want to preserve both the ideological component and promote territoriality, the most realistic option is a proportional regional system in which Knesset members are elected directly in their constituencies. In this method, each constituency has a proportional electoral system, and the elected representatives represent the district and the party platform on which they ran in the elections. Another mixed method that can suit Israel is a proportional regional system accompanied by proportional national elections. In this regional system, half of the seats will be chosen in the constituencies, with the number of seats derived from the size of the voting population. The remaining half of the seats will be chosen proportionally nationally. 

Thus, some representatives will come from the constituency districts and a parallel part on the national level. The most prominent example of a hybrid system is the one used in Germany where voters cast two ballots: half of the Bundestag delegates are personally elected by district and the same number according to the national party’s lists in proportional distribution. In doing so, the voter votes once for the candidate who represents the region and the second time for the party. In the past, the Megidor Committee recommended a comparable proposal.

Of course, the biggest difficulty in choosing an appropriate system would be to divide the country into regions in a fair way without manipulating boundaries to favor of the ruling party to ensure its advantages. (“Gerrymandering,” as it is called in the United States.) Since the main objective of changing the current electoral system is to weaken “tribal” influence over the political system a major challenge will be how to avoid dividing the country according to homogeneous ethnic, religious, or ideological regions. For example, determining the city of Tel Aviv as one constituency or areas with high Arab concentrations in the Galilee or the Negev as one district will only strengthen tribalism.

The goal should be to create, as much as possible, heterogeneous constituencies with communal and private needs at the regional level that will add another political dimension to the total commitments to tribal values. One of the possible solutions is for the areas to be determined according to the existing boundaries set by the Interior Ministry.

In conclusion, the change in the electoral system, as noted, should achieve two objectives: weakening the tribalism that is expressed in the current paralysis of the political system and strengthening the parliamentary system vis-à-vis the judiciary. While the transition to an electoral system based at least in part on territorial considerations will not cure all the ills of tribal society, it will at least take us out of a system of government that reflected at its time the riven society in the State of Israel but also perpetuated it.