Israel’s Formula for a Stable Government Lies in Italy

This isn’t a joke: Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s move to give an election winner bonus seats does away with the need for coalition governments.

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
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Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi outside the Chigi Palace in Rome, May 15, 2015.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi outside the Chigi Palace in Rome, May 15, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

We now have a coalition government that controls 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset. A one-vote majority (a two-vote advantage over the combined votes of the opposition) — who ever heard of such a thing? Can it last? Are we headed for another election?

Actually, after we have overcome the drama of the Knesset session in which the government was sworn in, it is well to remember that in 1977 when Likud came to power, Menachem Begin brought to the swearing-in ceremony just such a coalition of 61.

But there was one big difference. None of the Likud Knesset members entertained the thought of exploiting the razor-thin majority at Begin’s command to make demands for ministerial positions. All 43 Likud MKs understood that it was Begin’s prerogative to decide on the composition of the cabinet, and all were prepared to serve the nation in whatever position in the government or Knesset that was assigned to them.

That was 38 years ago. Are those days gone forever? Has egotism and the striving for personal advancement become the hallmark of today’s Israeli politics, where everyone insists he be appointed a minister, and past ministers feel they have the right to a more senior position lest they cause the government to fall? Has Begin’s dictum that we are here to serve the nation become a meaningless patriotic phrase?

Those who would like to believe that this kind of behavior is typical only of Likud MKs have another guess coming. The coming and going these past years of senior politicians from one party to another, abandoning their parties in order to gain personal advancement, characterizes certain Zionist Union politicians just as well.

And if Isaac Herzog in his more sober moments remembers that his “allies” in the opposition include Avigdor Lieberman, his five-man crew and the screaming hooligans who tried to break up the Knesset session during the prime minister’s speech, he will realize that he doesn’t really represent an alternative to Netanyahu’s 61-member coalition. Does that mean we are destined to be governed by unstable governments led by one party or another?

It is well understood that under the current electoral system, stability will only return when the two large parties — Likud and Labor — are represented in the Knesset each by at least 40 to 50 MKs. And that will not happen unless leading politicians cease wandering from one party to another, undermining whatever loyalty party members feel to one of the large parties. For this to occur, voters will have to be prepared to penalize such political Bedouin.

But there is another way to restore stability to governance. It is drastic and brutal and probably unpalatable to many. It is the law just passed by the Italian parliament at the initiative of Matteo Renzi, the young ambitious prime minister determined to bring stable governance to Italy, which has for many years has suffered from unstable governing coalitions.

Called “Italicum,” it provides ”bonus” seats in parliament to the party attaining the largest number of votes so that it will gain an absolute majority and not need a coalition to govern. Under this system, the size of parliament remains unchanged, and the remaining parliamentary seats after the “bonus” has been allocated to the largest party are apportioned to the other parties in proportion to the votes they won in the election. In other words, it is they who pay for providing the largest party with a stable majority.

An Israeli version of this law would have given Likud a “bonus” of 35 Knesset seats after the recent election, leaving it with 65 seats, reducing the representation of all the other parties to 55. Anybody prepared for this kind of stability?

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