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Israeli politics 101: What to expect when Israel elects

Israel's democracy can be regarded as 'pure' with its proportional representation system - but it can cause all manner of problems for decision makers

by Nathalie Tamam on 10 January 2013 09:38

Golda Meir once joked that "in Israel, there are three million prime ministers". She was right. 

In Israel, everyone has six opinions on any given topic, and seemingly six times the average vocal chord strength with which to express them.

On 22 January, Israelis will go to the polls to elect the 19th Knesset from which the next government will be formed. Like so much else in the region, Israel’s electoral system is not renowned for its simplicity. Whilst Israel’s citizens will have their say, it is unlikely to result in clear cut outcomes.

The plethora of political parties that have emerged over the years, and continue to be founded as a result of the proportional representation voting system, with a two percent threshold, has led to consistently complex and arguably inconclusive results. 

There are 17 (that's right, 17) parties currently operating in the Knesset and the upcoming election has resulted in the formation of even more. The newer parties vying for political power have much more of a chance of amassing a following and commanding seats than if a similar situation occurred in the United Kingdom.

Coalition politics, despite how you might feel about its uses in Britain, has always been a feature of Israeli political life. The parties with the most seats have sought to form intricate and difficult coalitions, often with those on the opposite side of the political divide. Sometimes it doesn't seem to matter if their political, religious and social beliefs totally contrast with theirs - until the coalition breaks that is, at which point 3 million experts are heard to exclaim, "Well, that was inevitable!"

In Britain we now, once again, have a much better understanding of the difficulties this creates. In Europe, proportional representation has always been the preferred system of electing a government. In Israel, the low threshold has created an extremely 'pure' form of democracy that has perhaps taken consensus too far and made it impossible for governments to take important decisions.

Leadership has been rendered redundant as charismatic and principled prime ministers have been held back by their coalition partners. Perhaps this is best described as 'checks and balances on steroids', but it has rendered political decision-making almost impossible.

It is a wonder that the larger parties have never sought to form a coalition with the express purpose of changing the system or at the very least raising the threshold to five percent as is common in other countries that adopt proportional representation.

It was touted around the time of the last election in 2009 that Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party, Netanyahu’s Likud and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu would work together to change the system and eliminate – or at least minimise - the hold that smaller parties have over government decisions. This never happened. Why? Well, surprise, surprise... the parties couldn’t agree.

Decision makers past and present have had to traverse their way through the perils of governing by multi-party coalition. We will no doubt see more of this in the coming weeks and months. 

While this can be a good way of limiting unnecessary state intervention,  in a country that is grappling with such important and significant economic issues as well as that of its very survival, it can be all too damaging.

This blog is the first in a series on the upcoming Israeli elections

This article is written in a personal capacity. The views expressed are those of the author's alone

Read more on: yisrael beiteinu, golda meir, Israeli elections, Israel , tzipi livni, Benjamin Netanyahu, proportional representation, Kadima party, Likud, and israel elects
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