Israel's Tangled Democracy

Why Governments Will Keep Falling

Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 30, 2014. Ronen Zvulun / Courtesy Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s third government has fallen, and new elections will be held on March 17, 2015. In the end, his coalition, which comprised parties with different, sometimes opposing, agendas and priorities, simply could not hold together. Former Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, for example, was committed to the peace process and an independent Palestinian state, whereas Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party and many Likud members of the Knesset adamantly opposed such an outcome. Meanwhile, Yair Lapid, the finance minister, who belongs to the Yesh Atid party, clashed with Netanyahu over economic policy.

The coalition’s demise is not unusual. In fact, only one government (Netanyahu’s second, from 2009 to 2013) has managed to serve most of its full four-year term since 1996. The issue is a much deeper problem with Israel’s electoral system, which means that it won’t go away after new elections.

Electorally, Israel functions as a single district; parties are elected to the 120-seat parliament on the basis of one of the purest forms of proportional representation in the world. They need only pass a low vote threshold—raised from two percent to 3.25 percent just this year—to win a seat. Meanwhile, voters choose from among a set of lists (comprising members of parties running for the Knesset or members of two or more parties who form an alliance during the election). It is a closed list; voters cannot alter the names or the rankings on it, which are selected through internal party procedures.

Israel’s electoral system can be traced back to the World Zionist Organization, created in the late 1890s. At that time, Zionist leaders felt an urgent need to gather as many of the disparate Jewish communities from around the world to the movement as possible. To do that, they opted for proportional representation. In the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, the Zionists adopted the same measures when they set up their political institutions. And when

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