With Israel heading for its second national election this year on Tuesday, polls show the two major parties getting a near-equal share of seats in the Knesset, raising the specter that the ostensible winner may again fail to form a coalition. The situation exposes some of the drawbacks of the Jewish state’s electoral system. Recalling various attempts at reform in the past few decades, proposed by expert political scientists, Shalom Carmy notes that even those that were implemented failed to produce the desired results, and suggests that all such attempts may be futile:
The . . . important question is whether any electoral system, however cleverly devised, can render invisible, as if by magic, deep social and political divides. In Israel’s early years, despite the flaws of [the system of] proportional representation, anything else would have been disastrous for Israeli democracy. Under a system [more like that of America or Great Britain], religious Jews, Arabs, and non-socialist secular Jews would have been without a national voice in a parliament dominated by the left. Proportional representation made coalition government a virtual necessity. It led to an unwieldy system, but it was one well-suited to maintaining unity in a potentially fractious society populated with lots of uncompromising idealists and zealots, to say nothing of men who had only recently served in paramilitary formations in order to throw off British rule and secure independence.
It is noteworthy that Ben-Gurion, the champion of [the British system of] regional representation, preferred to form his governments with the Orthodox Zionists and the bourgeois centrists rather than exclusively or primarily with the Marxist parties to his left. Doing so was certainly a cagey political move. . . . But Ben-Gurion was a statesman, and a significant motivating factor for this willingness to forgo ideological uniformity was his recognition that a united, hegemonic Israeli left would have disenfranchised and fatefully alienated the politically marginal Jewish groups.
There can be no doubt that the details of an electoral system affect political reality. . . . But the effects are limited, and no manipulation of the voting system, however clever or well-intentioned, can get around deep-seated differences in a sharply divided country. More importantly, no tinkering with election laws can repair those divisions and forge a new, unifying consensus. In the end, the schemes of experts cannot substitute for the talents of true statesmanship and the spirit of the people.