Israel’s broken electoral system needs fixing — fast

JCRC Scene
Matt Goldberg

Matt Goldberg

Such a chaotic political scene in Israel!
We have a retired general, Benny Gantz, being tasked with forming the next government – the first time in 11 years someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu has had that job – after a close election in which neither center-left nor right wing secured enough seats in the Knesset for a natural majority.
We see deals proposed, and rejected. We see calls for unity ignored, and we see a sinking lament as no progress is made, and no one knows what comes next.
Which is exactly what happened six months earlier.
To quote Yogi Berra, “it’s like déjà vu all over again.”
Gantz, leader of the center-left Blue and White party, was given the mandate to form a government last week, after Netanyahu, current prime minister and leader of the right wing Likud, announced he had failed to do so himself.
Their efforts follow the second national election in six months in which neither side has won the 61-seat majority needed to govern in the 120-seat Knesset.
To recap how Israel got into this jam, the country went to a second election in September because, following the first vote, one party, Yisrael Beitenu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, refused to join the governing coalition Netanyahu was trying to cobble together. Lieberman, who has become a kingmaker in Israeli politics, insisted that Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews serve in the army, something to which the religious parties strongly object.
Deadlocked, the country went to a second vote, and even though Blue and White narrowly defeated Likud at the polls, winning 33 seats to 32, the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who decides which party gets the first shot at trying to form a government tasked Netanyahu with the job, believing he had a better chance for success.
Turns out, he didn’t. The prime minister, who is facing the likely prospect of a criminal indictment on corruption charges, couldn’t convince Gantz to join a national unity government. The general refuses to share power with a man who has dark legal clouds hanging over his head.
Stymied, Netanyahu was forced to hand the mandate back to Rivlin who has now given it to Gantz. Unfortunately, his chances of success are about as good, and maybe a little worse, than his counterpart.
If he fails, Rivlin could conceivably give the mandate to a Member of Knesset (MK) who might prove more persuasive than Netanyahu or Gantz. Or he might just call for a – wait for it – third election.
Confused? Yes, so are most people.
Nobody can agree on a government, but it seems as though everyone can agree that a third election would be a national disaster – something that should be avoided at all costs.
The problem is there is no guarantee that a new election would yield a clear path to a new government. The results could be the same as they are now, maybe even murkier.
But two things we know for sure: Netanyahu, Israel’s political magician for over a decade, is not nearly the force he once was, and Gantz, though his power is ascending, is still not strong enough to govern on his own.
Israel cannot move forward with a caretaker government; the consequences for security, the economy, and international and domestic affairs are too dangerous to consider.
As American Jews, sitting on the sidelines watching this mess unfold is frustrating, not to mention heart wrenching, but we’re also learning a hard lesson: Israel’s political system is broken. The percentage of the national vote needed for a political party to enter the Knesset is 3.25 percent. That’s way too low and part of the cause for the current paralysis. Too many parties can win seats in the parliament, leaving coalition building as the only means for running the country.
Whenever the next government is seated, its first order of business ought to be fixing the electoral system so such long-lasting chaos can never happen again.

Matt Goldberg is the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

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