Israeli political system is messy, but it does the job of balancing many opposing interests
When Israel got its independence 71 years ago, it had many existential problems and few people. To make things more complicated, Israelis were highly heterogeneous; not only were there Jews, Arabs (Muslim and Christian), Druze, Bedouin, and Chechens, among the Jewish population, division rather than unity was the rule.There were Jews who felt disdain and even outright hostility towards any religion, particularly Judaism and there were those for whom it was the only thing they cared about. There were rich Tel-Aviv entrepreneurs and kibbutznikim who felt closer to Stalin than they did to their own petite bourgeoisie. There were Ashkenazi Jews and a growing number of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews from all over the world, including from countries like Yemen that were time capsules dating back to the Middle Ages and beyond. There were Jews who were shell-shocked because they had lost everything in the Holocaust in Europe and Jews who were shell-shocked because they were thrown out, penniless, from Arab and Muslim countries where they had lived for many centuries.
All these people had to be somehow represented in the legislature, their votes had to count in a way that was self-evident to them, or the new Israeli government would have no legitimacy. And legitimacy was sorely needed, because Israeli governments would routinely ask Israelis, including those who had only arrived a few days earlier to risk their lives on the battlefield, suffer financial hardship, and settle parts of the country that had not seen human population since the fall of the Second Temple in 70 AD if at all.
The system that was chosen was a British-style parliamentary democracy, but due to Israel’s small size and the fact that the various groups, except for certain minorities, had no geographic boundaries, but rather were dispersed throughout the country, all of Israel became one electoral district and legislative diversity was achieved not by members of the Knesset belonging to one of two or three big parties representing a specific geographic district as is the case in Britain itself and all its derivatives such as Canada, Australia, India, etc, but rather via a proliferation of small parties, parties that represented narrow sectorial interests whose constituents could be spread across many places around the country.
The first few Knessets had two big parties for non-observant Jews that had radically different views on the Arab-Israeli conflict and socialist vs. more liberal economy and one or two parties for observant and ultra-Orthodox constituents. Arab citizens were represented by their own factions as well. As Israel grew, the number of parties proliferated until forming a governing coalition and maintaining majority support for it in the legislature became rather difficult with many factions of only a single member of Knesset holding sway over life and death decisions and exercising disproportionate power.
This was corrected when the so-called “blocking percentage” or “threshold percentage” rule was introduced, a rule that is still in force today. This rule stipulates that the smallest faction in the Knesset will have no fewer then four members. It is achieved by counting the total number of votes cast and dividing it by 120, yielding the number of votes that for that specific election represents one seat in the Knesset. In order to be represented then, a party must have won at least four times that number of votes. Those that do not, get no representation and the people who voted for them are disenfranchised. This deters voters from casting votes for small parties that have dubious chances of passing the necessary threshold.
Like in all British-derived systems, the executive, the prime minister and all other ministers are members of the legislature and are elected indirectly, by votes cast for their parties rather than for them personally. Israel briefly flirted with direct elections for the post of the prime minister in the 1990’s, but it was not a good fit. In most cases and certainly in modern times, no single party can win the 61 seats needed for a majority government and in those cases the biggest party must form around itself a coalition of smaller parties to reach majority support in the legislature and form a government.
While as the current situation shows, this is often an excruciatingly difficult process, it is this particular process that gives legitimacy to the governments that it produces. Because the majority rule of the coalition government is tested nearly every day and the opposition, sensing that the governing coalition has frayed can always call a no confidence vote, which, should it pass, will automatically dissolve the Knesset and usher in new elections, government legitimacy is a living breathing thing in Israel. In Israel, no matter where you live, your vote counts. If the party you have voted for is in the opposition, you can at least rest assured that it is so because the majority of Israelis are fine with it and have chosen a different path. You may not like it, but that’s just how things really are.
Israelis vote with a government issued photo ID called “teudat zehut”, literally “identity certificate”, which is held by every Israeli or with their Israeli passports. Only Israelis who reside in Israel or are on diplomatic missions can vote. There is no early voting or voting of any kind that is not on election day and in person except for soldiers on active duty and diplomats serving overseas. Sick? Vacationing abroad? On a business trip? Tough luck, you will not be able to vote. Invitations to vote with the location of the polling station are mailed to every Israeli’s last known address. If you are a student and have moved without alerting the authorities, you may not be able to vote, as you must present your invitation with your photo ID to the polling station clerk in order to receive a ballot envelope. Once you present the proper credentials and receive such an envelope, you proceed to a booth where you will find paper slips with the names of all contending parties and the letter combinations that represent them clearly printed. You pick up the slip that represents your choice of party, place it in the envelope, seal it, and, upon exiting the booth, place the envelope into the ballot box in full view of the polling station committee. Placed more than one slip in the envelope? Wrote something on the slip or on the envelope? Your vote will not be counted. All votes are counted by hand. There is zero automation in Israeli elections in the casting or counting of votes.
There are, on every election day, reports of shortages of slips for a certain party and other small-scale irregularities or at least claims thereof, but they are never serious. The safeguards put in place and the fact that election day is a national holiday ensure that only Israeli citizens who are present in the country on election day and who have received an invitation to vote can indeed do so. The results are unassailable and so is the will of the people. The losing side can and often does bemoan the sorry state of the Israeli electorate, but never the legitimacy of the election results and the sovereignty of the Knesset so chosen.
In a country in which what seems like an infinite number of special interest groups constantly vie for every scrap of privilege, in a country in which you or your loved one is likely to be called to give his life for common defense, the integrity of the electoral process and making sure that every vote is not only counted, but actually counts is absolutely critical. The Israeli system, with all its “mishigas”, its petty bickering, its crazy and often even bizarre cast of characters, makes it happen. It simply works.
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