Fixing Israel’s Broken Electoral System

An Israeli friend asked the other day how Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden could be in the same party. It’s not surprising that this seems odd to him. It reflects the difference between America’s two-party electoral system and Israel’s parliamentary model.

In a multi-party parliamentary system parties tend to be ideological in nature. In other words, they’re strongly committed to a specific set of principles and goals. On the other hand, because there are only two parties with a chance of winning presidential elections in the U.S., both are only moderately ideological. U.S. parties are informal coalitions of interest groups that have come together for a common goal. This system enables each interest group to achieve some of their goals without being able to blackmail their party after the election, which is what happens in Israel.

Israel needs to move to a system where coalitions are built before elections not after. To accomplish this, the percentage a party needs to gain seats in the Knesset should be increased from the current 3.25 percent to as high as 7.5 percent. If that were in place this past September, six of the nine parties that won seats would have been shut out. Knowing in advance that would be the likely result would have forced each of them to negotiate with the two major Jewish parties—Blue and White and Likud––before the election. They would have had to join one or the other or lose all influence in the election’s outcome.

Ideological purity has its pluses. In Israel, it means minority viewpoints are represented, and that’s good, BUT it also means those parties have inordinate power beyond the percentage of the public that supports their positions. Yisrael Beiteinu with only seven percent of public support is blocking the formation of a government the consequences of which can be disastrous.

Ideological purity is the enemy of coalitions. Ideological purity explains why the left-leaning Labor Party would not join in a coalition with Bibi Netanyahu’s right-leaning Likud Party. Their voters would be outraged if they were to do so. To abandon the platform they campaigned on would guarantee their supporters would never vote for those individuals in the future.

The two major parties in the American system are much less ideological than those in Israel or other parliamentary systems. In the American system coalitions are formed before the election not afterward as in Israel. Franklin Delano Roosevelt put together a coalition that lasted decades. It was made up of large city political machines, labor unions, white Southerners, and ethnic minorities including Jews and blacks. Barack Obama imitated F.D.R. and won twice easily.

Because coalitions in the U.S. are built in advance of elections, interest groups are confident of gaining some, but not all, of their goals if and when their party prevails. That keeps their members happy because there’s hope they’ll gain more of their platform if they keep coming out for their party.

The weakness of the American electoral system is the process of choosing presidential candidates. Candidates know primaries attract the most committed voters and thus are motivated to take extreme positions during the primary season, forcing them to move to the center if they win their party’s nomination.

Donald Trump stood out and easily won the nomination in 2016 despite his lack of political experience. This year the field of more than twenty Democrats seeking their party’s nomination is shrinking fast as candidates with moderate views find it hard to gain media attention and support.

Neither electoral system is perfect. In Israel, reforms will need to be passed after the current crisis is over in order to avoid a repeat. I recommend increasing the minimum percentage vote to 7.0 or 7.5 percent in order to reduce the number of parties with a chance to gain seats and gum up the works. This would force parties to form coalitions BEFORE the election instead of afterwards. This would reduce the minor parties to influence groups while still enabling them to gain some, but not all of the platform outcomes they desire. Combining the best of both systems can help Israel avoid future stalemates.