Experience teaches that it is very difficult to legislate even small changes to the Israeli electoral system, not to mention a major upheaval. So if an agreement can be reached on electoral reform, it will not be over something so dramatic as switching to a presidential system, but rather over relatively minor tweaks: raising the minimum vote threshold, preventing MKs from serving on the cabinet and vice versa, and raising the bar for dissolving the government. It bears remembering that the new coalition is likely to include small parties, such as United Torah Judaism, that fear any change to the system.
When politicians or academics talk about electoral reform, they are talking about many different things, often totally unrelated. They might mean changing the form of government, or the form of elections (like a switch to geographic-based representation). The vast majority of the proposals are good for the big parties and bad for the small ones, since their main aim is to strengthen the government's power to rule.
Israel's electoral system consists of proportional elections and a parliamentary system (in which the government is chosen by the parliament, not directly), with a relatively low minimum vote threshold of 2 percent. This system guarantees broad representation to all social groups, which is a considerable advantage in a divided society like Israel's. However it also has the ability to dissolve governments with no-confidence votes and affords great power to relatively small parties, forcing the government to give in to political blackmail and to reach compromises.
In 1992, the Knesset approved a shift to direct elections in a combination of parliamentary and presidential rule. It was passed as a political compromise, in a form untried anywhere else in the world. The vote for the head of state and for the legislature was separated into two votes, as in a presidential system, but ministers were selected from among the MKs as in a parliamentary system, and the Knesset retained the power to bring down the government.
The system was first introduced in the 1996 election, which Benjamin Netanyahu won. It proved to be an unmitigated failure. The ability to split one's vote between the prime minister and the party effectively destroyed the big parties and created a Knesset composed of small and medium-sized ones. In addition, the ruling party did not have a majority and the Knesset passed laws costing billions of shekels. In March 2001, the Knesset voted to restore the old and tried method.
The failure of direct elections is one reason for the fear of changing the system and creating further upheavals. Yisrael Beiteinu's platform speaks of "shifting from a parliamentary to a presidential system," meaning that the president is to be elected separately from the Knesset, cabinet ministers will be chosen for their professional skills and will serve for a predetermined period without fear of being forced out by a no-confidence vote.
The outgoing coalition chairman, MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima) and MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu) can both agree on at least one change: raising the minimum vote threshold. Both probably want a significant increase, but if Likud ends up forming the next government, as appears likely, it will have to get along with the small religious parties that oppose raising the threshold and would probably only agree to a symbolic rise, from 2.5 percent to 3 percent.
Rotem also wants to pass a law stipulating that the moment an MK is tapped for a cabinet post, his or her Knesset seat will be taken by the next person on the party's candidate list, in order to create a complete separation between the legislative and the executive branches and allow both MKs and cabinet ministers to concentrate on their respective duties.
Hasson and Rotem can also agree on the need to make it more difficult to bring down the government and dissolve the Knesset. Hasson speaks of requiring a vote of 80 MKs to dissolve the Knesset during the term. Rotem proposes a minimum of 61 votes to introduce a no-confidence motion.
It should be noted that Yisrael Beiteinu does not say anything about changing the electoral system, but many of those talking up changing the system of government would like to switch to a geographic system of representation, and that, too, would benefit the large parties.
President Shimon Peres, for example, said this week that the system must be changed and promised to cooperate in any effort to do so.