In May 1996, Israel’s elections were conducted under a new system which may have a significant influence not only on the country’s constitutional structure but also on the nation’s politics and even its policies.
Prior to the most recent structural changes in the Israeli electoral system it was a fairly typical parliamentary structure. While Israel’s version certainly had its share of idiosyncratic characteristics, the basic principles of parliamentary elections were evident in Israeli politics: the prime minister was one of the members of the elected legislative body, was chosen by members of the elected legislative body, and was responsible to the members of the elected legislative body.
Israeli elections are based on proportional representation, with the entire nation making up a single electoral district. Political parties draw up official lists of candidates, in order of priority to receive a Knesset seat, and voters vote for a party, not the individual candidates. Each party needed at least 1.5 percent of the vote–originally 1 percent–to win any representation at all. Votes for parties with less than this “threshold” were thrown out.
After invalid votes were excluded, parties would be awarded seats in the Knesset on the basis of a “key,” with a fixed number of votes being needed for each seat in the Knesset computed on the basis of the total number of valid votes.(1) After all the parties received their initial seat distribution, seats remaining in the Knesset were then distributed in a complex process, among parties with high numbers of “surplus votes.”
According to The Basic Law: The Knesset: “The Knesset shall be elected by general, national, direct, equal, secret and proportional elections.” Citizens (over the age of 18; candidates must be over age 21) vote for parties, not individual candidates, and parties receive a number of seats in the Knesset proportional to the number of votes they receive. The “threshold” is at 1.5 percent of the vote; votes cast for parties receiving fewer votes are “wasted.” This, briefly, was how Israeli elections worked in past years.(2)
The prime minister was one of the members of the elected legislative body, was chosen by members of the elected legislative body, and was responsible to the members of the elected legislative body. When a majority of the Knesset ceased supporting the Government of the day it resigned from office.
Through Israel’s first 13 Knesset elections this electoral system — with minor modifications–worked fairly effectively. The advantage of proportional representation electoral systems, generally, is that they do a good job of representing a wide range of parties. But the disadvantage is that they often allow representation for such a wide range of parties that they necessitate complex and troublesome coalition governments. When Italy’s Chamber of Deputies was selected by this electoral system it was common to see over a dozen political parties in the legislature, including many relatively small parties, resulting in unstable coalition governments.
While Israel’s governments have not been as unstable as those in Italy, the electoral system did result in many political parties being represented in the Knesset, some with only a handful of seats. Many relatively small parties found themselves in the enviable position of having a disproportionate amount of political influence with the government because they held the balance between its having a majority coalition and possibly falling out of power.
For a variety of reasons, electoral reform has been the subject of intense political debate in Israel almost since the day it achieved statehood.(3) In 1992, the Knesset approved an amendment to The Basic Law: The Government, that involved a major revision to Israel’s electoral system. One of the major ideas behind this change was to create a system that would separate the executive branch of government from the legislative branch and to strengthen the executive branch of government. It is to a discussion of that system that we now turn our attention.
Direct Election of the Prime Minister
Perhaps the most important piece of legislation enacted by the Twelfth Knesset (1988-1992) was the amendment to The Basic Law: The Government, changing the electoral system from what can be called a “pure parliamentary” system (even allowing for uniquely Israeli characteristics) to what can now be called a quasi-presidential model. After all, the central characteristic of the presidential model of government, found in the United States, Mexico, the Philippines, and many other polities, is that the chief executive is elected independently of the legislature.
The major change in the new electoral system involves the direct election of the prime minister. In the past, it was up to the president of Israel to observe the outcome of the Knesset election and to decide who should be the prime minister-designate. While the decision was usually an easy one to make because one of the two major parties had a clear mandate from the public, there were occasions when the margin between the two major parties was extremely small. For example, in 1988 the Likud had 40 seats in the Knesset while Labor had 39 seats. One motive for electoral reform was that this kind of situation gave inappropriate influence to some small parties–usually the Orthodox religious parties–whose support could make the difference between a party being able to form a government and a party not being able to form a government. Supporters of reform argued that the direct election of a prime minister would “free” the prime minister from this type of constraining or “blackmailing” influence of smaller parties.
The law indicated that should no candidate receive more than half of the valid votes, a run-off election would be held between the two candidates with the most votes. In the run-off election, the candidate with the largest number of votes would be the winner. The prime minister-elect had 45 days to present a list of ministers to the Knesset and receive a confidence vote for the cabinet. Should the prime minister not successfully present a government to the Knesset within 45 days, special elections for a new prime minister would have to be held within 60 days. The law indicates that should the same candidate be reelected and not successfully present a government within 45 days, new elections would have to be held once more but that candidate would not be eligible to be a candidate in the third round of elections.
Many were unsure about the circumstances under which a Knesset might be dissolved before the end of its four-year term and new elections called. Under the new system this would take place(10):
if the Knesset rejects the list of ministers proposed by the prime minister;
if the Knesset expresses no-confidence in the prime minister by a majority of at least 61 MKs;
if the Knesset fails to adopt the Budget Law within three months after the beginning of the fiscal year;
if the Knesset dissolves itself by passing a special law to that effect; or if the prime minister, after notifying the President, resigns and dissolves the Knesset.
There was similar concern about when, under the new system, the popularly elected prime minister might be “fired” and new elections called — what would be the functional equivalent of a vote of non-confidence under the “old” system. Under the new electoral system new elections for prime minister would take place in the following circumstances:
if the Knesset (by a special majority of 80 members) votes to remove the prime minister from office;
if the Knesset by a regular majority vote removes the prime minister from office due to a conviction on an offense involvin moral turpitude;
if the prime minister is unable to appoint the specified minimum of eight ministers to form his government; or
if the prime minister has died, or is permanently unable to fulfill his functions.
While vestiges of the older, “pure” parliamentary system still exist, the new model has many differences. One potential outcome is that it permits a prime minister of one party to be elected while a different party controls a majority coalition in the Knesset. Moreover, the functional equivalent of a no-confidence vote–the Knesset “firing” a prime minister–would now require 80 votes rather than a simple majority of those present and voting as had been the case in the old system.
The new electoral law went into effect with the elections to the Fourteenth Knesset in May 1996. Two separate ballots were used: voters cast one vote for prime minister, and another for members of the Knesset. The procedure for Knesset elections was essentially unchanged. Parties produced lists of candidates in order of priority for elections. Voters cast their Knesset votes by party, and the number of votes received determined how many on the list won seats. Some parties signed surplus vote agreements before the election, agreeing to either pool surplus votes or have one party give them to the other after the election.(4)
The second vote for each voter involved the prime ministership. In the period preceding the Likud party primary elections there were several candidates who indicated that they would contest the race for prime minister; Ariel Sharon withdrew his candidacy in December 1995;(5) Rafael Eitan was coopted into the Likud list, (6) and as the deadline approached David Levy agreed not to contest the prime ministership in exchange for the number two position on the Likud list and a commitment from Netanyahu of a cabinet position in the new government should the Likud win,(7) leaving a two-man race between incumbent Shimon Peres of the Labor Party(8) and Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu.(9)
As votes were counted, it was clear that the experiment in electoral reform had indeed deeply affected the political system. Several significant points emerged:
First, the direct election of the prime minister was an extremely close vote and also resulted in an elected prime minister who does not lead the largest single party in the Knesset.
Second, the direct election of the prime minister was clearly associated with far more deal-making than in the past, especially in the period leading up to the vote.
Third, voters felt free to split their ballots and vote for small parties for Knesset.
Two names were on the ballot for prime minister and as the election approached, it became increasingly obvious that the margin of victory would be quite narrow. In fact, neither candidate actually received over 50 percent of the ballots though Netanyahu did obtain that proportion of the valid votes. Not counting the blank ballots, Netanyahu received 50.49 percent and Peres won 49.50 percent. If blank ballots are taken into account, Netanyahu would have received 49.09 percent and Peres 47.10 percent.(12) Over 148,000 voters put in “invalid” votes, “mostly blank slips.”(13)
The election results left Israel with a prime minister who was not the leader of the plurality party in the Knesset. Critics blamed Netanyahu for having “sacrificed the Likud list” in his quest for the prime ministership. By giving away seven “safe” seats to the Tsomet faction and another seven “safe” seats to the Gesher faction, he weakened his own party’s representation. Such an arrangement would not have happened in the old system.(14)
It should also be explicitly noted that this election did not show us all of the eventualities that could develop in the direct election of a prime minister. Had Netanyahu been unable to coopt Levy and Eitan, a three- or four-way race for the prime minister position could have resulted with no candidate receiving a majority, requiring a run-off. We can only imagine the extent of the deal-making that would take place under those circumstances.
In the “old” system, some parties signed pre-election alliances but most did not. The real deal-making began after the voting when a prime minister-designate had to put together a coalition. The new system intensified the earlier bargaining while perhaps slightly diminishing the latter rounds of negotiations.
In the pre-election phase, we have already noted how David Levy left the Likud and announced he would run for prime minister. This would have created (at least) a three-candidate race, with most of Levy’s support coming from Likud supporters and possibly bringing victory to Peres. Netanyahu had to do whatever was necessary to ensure that Levy (and earlier Rafael Eitan, too) didn’t run for office.
This resulted in his promising cabinet positions and 7 “safe” seats to both Levy and Eitan. Would Levy have been able to negotiate such terms under the old system? It is unlikely though not impossible. The question of whether the new electoral system will always lead to pre-election negotiations to generate a two-candidate race is interesting and important, thought clearly not the intention of the plan’s authors.
Another interesting question involves Netanyahu’s other deals with small parties to gain endorsement of his candidacy.(15) The payment of Likud surplus votes as part of such arrangements also resulted in Likud receiving fewer Knesset seats. These show how small parties could continue to “blackmail” large parties in exchange for their support, a problem the new system was supposed to reduce.
Many veteran Likud candidates would certainly have been elected to the Knesset had Netanyahu not given away 14 “safe” positions on the Likud’s Knesset list in exchange for support for his election as Prime Minister.(16) But many Netanyahu supporters justified these steps on the grounds that “it will be worth it if Bibi captures the prime ministership and we keep Shimon Peres out of office.”(17)
Probably the single biggest surprise in the election was the significant increase in representation of the smaller parties in the Knesset, and the corresponding decrease in representation for the larger parties. The split-ballot system was in a sense “liberating” for Israeli voters. Many voters who traditionally supported Labor or Likud did so because they saw it as a way to influence the selection of the prime minister, since the leader of the party with the most seats would become prime minister.
Under the new system, a voter’s choice for Knesset and prime minister can be from different parties. Many voters did this in the May election: While 50.4 percent of valid votes cast for the Likud candidate for prime minister, only 25.1 percent of valid votes went to its Knesset list. Similarly, while 49.5 percent of the valid votes were cast for the Labor candidate, only 26.8 percent of valid votes went to its list of candidates for the Knesset.
Thus the direct election of the prime minister has already proven quite significant for the Israeli political system:
–Election of a prime minister who does not lead the plurality party in the Knesset. Netanyahu was able to piece together a majority coalition in the period following the election, but in the old system Peres, not Netanyahu, might have been given the first opportunity to create a coalition government.
–A higher level of deal-making in the election, both before the voting, to win electoral support–especially from leaders of the religious parties whose influence over their followers’ votes is very strong–and afterwards, to form a coalition.
–A possible increase, not decrease, in the relative political power of small parties. Now they have leverage both before the election, when their leaders may be called upon to endorse a candidate for prime minister, and afterward, when they may be invited to join a coalition. Yet once the government is actually formed, their ability to bring down a prime minister seems weaker.
Future Directions of Israeli Politics
While it is too early to know the new system’s long-term effects some preliminary observations may be made.
First, the system may not last, though there are no immediate prospects for appeal. Since the day the Twelfth Knesset passed legislation for the new electoral system, numerous critics have suggested that it was a bad idea and that the Knesset should reinstate the system Israel had for its first 48 years of existence. Legislation for such a change was introduced in the current Knesset shortly after its first meeting.
Second, the position of Israeli prime minister is being “presidentialized” though it is not clear how much this is due to long-term trends, how much to the election reform, and how much to Netanyahu’s personal style. This change has not been accepted without complaint but the electoral reform itself makes it harder to unseat such an assertive prime minister.”(19) Netanyahu himself has noted his status as a directly elected prime minister who is not in office as the result of a coalition agreement. Creating a powerful chief executive was one of the reform’s intentions but it may be that implementation has made it less attractive to some individuals and interest groups.
Third, the Knesset has become less relatively powerful. Arguments in the Likud party that sacrificing its Knesset list would be “worth it” if Netanyahu were elected prime minister show this perception. Again, this was part of the reform’s goals though not all may be happy with that result. The Knesset would need 80 votes–rather than just a majority of those present and voting–to dismiss a prime minister. Moreover, a no-confidence vote of 61 (but less than 80) members would lead to the Knesset’s dissolution and new elections. This latter possibility would have more of a “chilling” effect on members of the legislature, who might lose their seats, than on a prime minister, who would remain in office.
Fourth, contrary to the reformers’ expectations, though, the new system clearly resulted in stronger small parties in the Knesset since voters split their ballots between parties. This has led to concern that the new system sharpens ethnic or religious/secular divisions in Israeli society.
Of course, political systems evolve to find situations of stasis that are appropriate for them at a specific time and a specific place. It should come as no surprise to us that Israel, surely one of the most politically, socially, and culturally heterogenous nations in the world, should decide to experiment a bit with its political structures. What we may want to ask is: What took so long?
1. For example, in 1988 2,283,123 valid votes were cast. Divided by 120 Knesset seats this yielded a “key” of 19,026 votes per seat. Likud’s 709,305 votes yielded 37 seats, with a remainder of 5,343 votes.
2. For a full discussion of Israel’s electoral and political system, see Gregory Mahler, Israel: Government and Politics in a Maturing State (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1990), especially Chapter Six.
3. Israel Diaspora Institute, “Electoral Reform in Israel”; Mahler, Israel, pp. 137-142.
4. For example, Herb Keinon, “NRP, UTJ Sign Surplus Vote Pact,” Jerusalem Post [hereafter, JP] (April 26, 1996), p. 1; Yochi Dreazen, “Shas: One More and We Have a Minyan,” JP (May 30, 1996), p. 2; Liat Collins, “Third Way’s Campaign Paying Off,” JP (May 28, 1996), p. 2; and Sarah Honig, “Likud and Shas Team Up to Bring Voters to Polls,” JP (May 20, 1996), p. 2.
5. Sarah Honig, “Sharon Withdraws from Race for PM,” The JP (December 22, 1995), p. 4.
6. Sarah Honig and Liat Collins, “Likud, Tsomet to Okay Pact Today,” JP (February 8, 1995), p. 1.
7. David Rudge, “Hundreds Attend David Levy Rally in Kiryat Shmona,” JP (September 7, 1995), p. 2; Sarah Honig, “Levy, Likud Deal Expected This Week,” JP (March 3, 1996), p. 1.
8. Labor’s Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shetreet tested public opinion but withdrew in January when it became clear that his challenge was “hopeless.” Sarah Honig and Liat Collins, “Peres is Official Labor PM Candidate,” JP (January 22, 1996), p. 1.
9. Sarah Honig, “Tsomet and NRP Realign with the Opposition,” JP (December 8, 1995), p. 3.
10. These two lists are derived from material provided by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Elections in Israel 1996: Background,” http:\www.israel-mfa.gov.il/news/elec1996.html.
11. Daniel Elazar and Shmuel Sandler, eds., The Elections in Israel, 1996, forthcoming.
12. This blank ballot was to deal with a situation where there were no pre-printed ballots for a candidate left in the voting booth. In that case, the voter was to write the name of the preferred candidate on the paper. It was made clear beforehand that blank slips would not count as votes.
13. Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Israel Update: Israel Elections, 1996,” “Elections in Israel, May 1996,” at http://www.israel-mfa.gov.il/news/results.html.
14. Sarah Honig, “Netanyahu Sacrificed Likud List in His Bid for the Premiership,” JP (February 6, 1996), p. 1.
15. See, for example, “Likud, Shas Close to Surplus Vote Pact,” JP (April 29, 1996), p. 1; David Rudge, “Hadash, UAL Plan Knesset Coordination,” JP (May 17, 1996), p. 3.
16. See Honig, “Netanyahu Sacrificed Likud List,” op. cit.
17. A Likudnik stated, “I will support the agreement because the main issue is increasing the chances of Netanyahu becoming premier.” MK Ovadia Eli, attributed his criticisms of the Likud- Tsomet deal to its not serving “the Likud in its main aim of bringing Netanyahu to the prime minister’s post.” Sarah Honig and Liat Collins, “Tsomet to Okay Clause Linking It With Likud,” JP (February 7, 1996), p. 1; Liat Collins, “Likud, Tsomet MKs Split Over Deal,” JP (February 6, 1996), p. 1.
18. “Split ticket voting” refers to those supporting one party’s candidate for prime minister and a different party for the Knesset race, something impossible in the old system.
19. Yosef Goell, “Premier, Not Dictator,” JP (Monday, June 24, 1996), p. 6.