Opinion

The Flaw in Israel's Electoral System

Our electoral system encourages such warped politics - you can gain power even when 52 percent of the public doesn’t want you to be the next prime minister

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting troops on Israel's northern border, January 13, 2019.
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We need to change the electoral system — and not by switching to the Anglo-American system of geographic districts. We need to adopt an electoral system that might begin to heal our sick political system.

Back when Benjamin Netanyahu was finance minister (2003-2005), he spoke with me about opinion polling, noting that even when he was elected prime minister in 1996, he was seen as “negative.”

By “negative,” he meant that, according to polling, most Israelis didn’t like him. Nevertheless, he was elected prime minister in a system of direct election of the prime minister at the time. His negative has always been higher than his positive, Netanyahu continued, but then, at the time of our conversation, for the first time, his positive was greater than his negative.

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Netanyahu as finance minister was a politician who made efforts to pacify the political camp that had annoyed him so much during his first term as prime minister. He made peace with journalists and rivals, effectively promoted his economic agenda, didn’t fight the elites and remained relatively moderate on diplomatic issues.

The outcome, as he saw it, came in the 2006 election. His Likud party suffered the biggest loss in its history, winning only 12 Knesset seats. In the 2015 election, Netanyahu did the opposite. He didn’t try to be liked by the rival camp.

On a scale in which 0 represents great hatred and 10 great love, the Netanyahu of 2019 has no problem with 50 percent of the public rating him 0 or 1, as long as the 25 percent of the public that likes him — his base — gives him an 8 or 9. It’s Trumpian politics — sharpening the extremes, radicalizing the debate, talk of traitors, leftists, in short, everything we’ve experienced here for the last four years.

Our electoral system encourages such warped politics. You can gain power even when 52 percent of the public, according to one recent poll, doesn’t want you to be the next prime minister. How much you’re disliked by people who don’t vote for you is meaningless, since they won’t vote for you in any event. All Netanyahu needs is 30 Knesset seats, and everything else will fall into place.

A miracle would have to happen for the center-right bloc not to have more than 60 seats. It has happened only once in the last 30 years. And the moment the center-right has more than 60 seats, with Netanyahu’s party at 30, there’s almost no way for him not to be prime minister. He doesn’t care if the other side feels that the country has been stolen from it.

A smarter electoral system would reward people who practice a different kind of politics. Ireland and Malta, for instance, have more complicated systems in which each person’s vote carries more weight. It involves ranking the candidates in order. Likud voters would put Netanyahu first, but they would also rank all the other parties’ candidates. Naftali Bennett might be second, Avigdor Lieberman third and so forth. Center-left voters would presumably put Netanyahu last.

The system means that a voter’s second and third choices also carry weight. It would create a situation in which the center-left would automatically unite behind a single candidate, because all the votes for Avi Gabbay, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid would automatically be transferred to whichever of them receives the most first-place rankings.

The system has an important advantage: During the campaign, Lapid would have no interest in attacking Gantz, or vice versa. That would completely reverse the current balance of incentives. In Israel, Netanyahu and Bennett have a huge incentive to battle each other. In one American state where this system, known as single transferrable vote, is used, the candidates wrapped up a debate by holding hands and singing together.

In every election campaign, politicians bemoan the outdated election laws. Yet they almost never do anything about it. On the other hand, there are a lot of new parties and politicians who are claiming to have new ideas. Maybe one of the candidates would like to try to change our voting system, which has brought our politics to a particularly grim low.