Israel’s Maddening Electoral System Deserves Credit for Holding the Country Together

June 28, 2019 | Haviv Rettig Gur
About the author: Haviv Rettig Gur is the senior analyst for the Times of Israel.

After winning a fiercely contested election in the spring, Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition, leading the Knesset to call for new elections in September. Some Israelis blamed the prime minister, while others blamed the leaders of the small right-wing parties that refused to make the compromises necessary to sit to make a coalition possible. But many pointed their fingers at the political system itself, which gives—in this case—the leader of a party that won only five Knesset seats the ability to bring about the second election in a single year. Haviv Rettig Gur, despite sharing in the frustration, defends this much-maligned system:

Israel’s electoral system . . . forces majorities to pay heed to minorities—sometimes too much, sometimes not enough, but the simple fact that Ḥaredim, religious Zionists, Sephardi Jews, Russian-speakers, and so forth all get a seat at the table, even if it is to the [frustration] of prime ministers who resent the political juggling act this entails, has shaped some of the best features of Israeli society, from its cohesion to its very democracy.

At the ballot box, Israelis are tribal. How Israelis vote correlates more with their grandparents’ country of origin than with their most obvious socioeconomic interest. . . . And when measured against the needs of the fractured society it serves, Israel’s electoral system, for all its manifest flaws, delivers where it matters most: it forces cooperation among these competing groups.

In this informal democracy, whose liberties flow not from legislation or clever constitutional engineering, but from a deeper and more amorphous social compromise, a kind of “grand bargain” is enabled between Israel’s many tribes that has allowed them to act as a coherent whole and to construct on such divided foundations a successful and stable polity.

And its primary means for doing that: the coalition negotiations process, the very same step after the last election that sent the country tumbling toward a new one. . . . [I]n Netanyahu’s coalition troubles we find a prime minister beset by checks no less powerful and self-limiting than in any other democracy—and it is Israel’s tribes, in this case secularist Russian-speakers facing off against ḥaredi factions, that force on each prime minister the complicated balancing act so often derided as the great flaw in Israeli governance.

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