Oped | Victors’ Bonus: What Israel Could Learn From Athens

The following essay and original research first appeared in The Globalist.

On Tuesday, more than a dozen Israeli political parties are expected to win seats in the country’s snap parliamentary elections that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called after his coalition broke up last year.

These parties will vie for a total of 120 proportionally elected seats in the Knesset. Israel’s threshold to win seats has this year been raised to 3.25% of the vote (translating to 3-4 seats).

As a result of this fractious system, no single Israeli party or joint list has ever won a majority (61 seats) in an election.

No clear winners in Israeli elections

In the past five elections, the party or list that ended up forming the coalition won an average of just 30.2 seats out of 120 – i.e., only a quarter of the seats – with 11-14 other lists also winning seats.

To form a government thus requires coalition building among quite a few parties, usually with very different (if not diametrically opposed) policy views. No wonder that, under those circumstances, coalitions do not last very long.

The public has previously shown a desire for a stronger executive mandate. Israel briefly adopted direct elections for Prime Minister in the 1990s. To exclude unserious candidates, only major parties could nominate someone. In each of the three times Prime Ministers were directly elected, only two candidates competed.

This modification unfortunately did not fix the problem because the Prime Minister could win an outright majority of the vote but still lack a majority of legislators to support his cabinet or agenda.

Since then, other than tinkering with the electoral threshold very slightly, Israel has not tried to deal with the leadership and policy instability problem inherent in its system.

Where Athens does provide inspiration

One possible place to seek electoral reform inspiration for Israel might be Greece – the birthplace of democracy and a country with a similar population size – despite its own serious current political challenges.

Similarly to Israel, 250 members of Greece’s parliament are elected through a system that ensures fair geographic representation along with the proportional will of the national electorate, using a 3% threshold.

However, there is one big innovation to clarify the executive mandate. As of the 2008 revisions to Greek election laws, the top-finishing party is given a victory bonus of 50 extra seats – bringing the total to 300 seats in parliament – to help the winner get closer to a governing majority.

This represents a bonus equal to 20% of the proportionally elected seats. (An earlier law gave the winner 40 seats.)

It’s not a perfect setup, of course. A party earning relatively low percentage of the vote share can gain an extra 20% of the seats even if it falls well short of capturing the confidence of a majority of voters and even if another party were to capture just 1% less of the electorate than the winner.

However, it substantially boosts the chances of quickly forming a government and allowing that government to push through its major agenda items, rather than floundering along with the status quo due to internal gridlock.

Meanwhile, it still allows for diverse, multi-party elections — but constructively counteracts the growth of fringe, single-issue, or personality-centric parties that take up seats or weaken serious parties without actually contributing to the government or the opposition in any substantive way.

Israel’s political system, even more so than Greece, would benefit from being cleared of such parties. Politicians would have more incentive to remain inside a major party, rather than splintering, as often happens.

Applying Athens in Jerusalem

If a comparable bonus were applied in Israel, it could mean 120 seats would be elected proportionally with 24 additional seats awarded to the winning list. (The Knesset would expand to 144 members in this scenario, and 73 seats would be a majority.)
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The Israeli left is still pretty much dead

Well, just as I suspected, the Israeli left is still irreparably broken and hopeless. The uncomfortable Labor-Hatnuah center-left electoral alliance known as “Zionist Camp” is flailing badly with a month to go in the Israeli campaign:

The Zionist Camp’s campaign is one of the most flawed and struggling ever seen in Israel. Not only did the joint campaign fail to win widespread support, it actually helped Netanyahu recover in the polls while causing enormous harm to [Isaac] Herzog’s chances of becoming Israel’s next prime minister. Furthermore, it has become clear that the rotation agreement, reached at the start of the campaign as a precondition for [Tzipi] Livni joining forces with Herzog, has caused Herzog tremendous damage.

(The rotation agreement is basically that Herzog of Labor would be prime minister for 2 years and then Livni of Hatnuah would be prime minister for 2 years after that.)

Livni, a former member of the conservative Likud Party before switching to various iterations of a centrist party, is still convinced (according to this article) that her natural appeal and constituency lies in appealing to the Israeli moderate right — whatever that is — instead of the fragmented left-leaning voters in the country, which is where the bulk of Labor’s support comes from.

As usual, this strategy of abandoning the left completely and trying to appeal to the center-right doesn’t really produce much success and tends to consolidate the conservative party or parties much father toward the right.

As that article above also notes, the centrist parties and the center-left “Zionist Camp” partnership have essentially just redistributed the votes on the left without actually gaining any “market share” so to speak from the right. This has serious consequences because any hypothetical leftist government was already going to need the support of a bunch of leftist parties to form a coalition, as I explored in my recent op-ed for The Globalist.

One scenario that might actually change things on both economic issues and the question of the Palestinian territories would be a nine-party coalition led by Herzog. The parties would be Labor (center-left), Hatnuah (centrist), Yesh Atid (center-left), Meretz (social democratic), a joint Arab/Communist list of four diverse parties, and Kulanu (centrist).

Weakening some of them could push one or two of those similarly-minded parties below the vote percentage threshold to receive any seats after the election, which makes it more likely that those seats will instead be awarded toward the small ultra-right-wing parties that would be the next-lowest vote-getters. Collectively, the Israeli right is already much more unified and condensed, as I also pointed out.

Another plausible outcome would be a six- to seven-party coalition headed by Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud and made up entirely of parties that oppose halting settlement construction and/or the entire peace process. This would likely be more stable, as there is somewhat less disagreement on fundamentals and details alike.

Indeed, in sharp contrast with the near lockstep between the right-wing parties on big issues, all the public bickering inside “Zionist Camp” has undermined any confidence that the two tent-pole parties of any left-leaning coalition could actually work together with each other, let alone with a half dozen or more coalition partners from other left-leaning parties.

We’re now heading, as I expected, either toward

  • a highly unstable and internally jumbled coalition of Labor/Hatnuah and a bunch of small but very right-wing parties that oppose everything Herzog claims to stand for, or
  • a new Netanyahu government that is more decisively right-wing, religious, and ethnocentric than ever before in Israeli history

To be clear: in the latter scenario, Israel’s coalition government would be led by an ever more conservative Likud party and filled with a number of parties so extreme that if they were running for office in Europe and winning seats we would all be wringing our hands like we do with UKIP, Front National, Swedish Democrats, et al.

Israel’s election is likely to be a bitter disappointment for Washington, but not an unpredictable one for anyone who has taken the time to understand the Israeli election system and pays attention to the fractious developments in its domestic politics since 2005. This should not in any way surprise American officials and pundits.

The latter of the two increasingly likely outcomes, I argued last week…

…would demonstrate the paralysis of the Israeli left (and isolation of the Israeli Arab population) against the rise of politicized Orthodox Judaism and immigrant-turned-settler politics.

And those trends are nothing new. This would merely confirm all of that.

Op-Ed | Israel: There’s No Crystal Ball for Election Consequences

The following op-ed was originally published in The Globalist.

Pictured: Israel's Knesset (parliament) building in Jerusalem. (via Wikimedia)

Pictured: Israel’s Knesset (parliament) building in Jerusalem. (via Wikimedia)

U.S. media is abuzz with rumors over which Democrats will or will not attend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled March speech to the U.S. Congress at the invitation of the Republicans. Many expressed concern that attending could be viewed as endorsing him in the upcoming elections.

Meanwhile, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry “spoke informally” in Munich with Mr. Netanyahu’s leading challenger, Isaac Herzog, fueling further controversy. This framing of the news speaks to the overly reductive nature of U.S. coverage of overseas elections, which tries to fit all stories to the U.S. horserace model.

Outside that lens, the Israeli electoral system is notoriously complex. This year, at least 16 parties will contest the snap parliamentary elections that current Prime Minister Netanyahu has called for March 17.

These parties vie for a total of semi-proportionally elected 120 seats. A number of the parties will run their candidates, as usual, on temporary fusion lists, in part to clear the new three to four seat threshold.

Due to the voting complexity, predicting even the approximate distribution of seats across these many parties is often a fool’s errand.

A complex electoral system

This electoral reality in Israel generally produces short-lived coalition governments featuring a kaleidoscope of parties and unstable partnerships of two or more parties.

Even so, at the present time, much is made in Washington about who will head the next Israeli coalition government – incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, or Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and list partner Tzipi Livni of centrist Hatnuah.

Independent of who “wins” – by taking the most seats or forming a coalition government — it is almost impossible to predict what the policy results of the election might be under either outcome.

Those policies – changed for the better or as static and uncooperative as at present – are not so much determined by whoever is prime minister, but by the governing coalition’s composition.

In other words, even a change in the prime minister’s chair might not actually significantly shift policy – domestically or on military/diplomatic affairs – unless there is a perfect storm of results for every party necessary to forge such changes.

In a more traditional and simplified election system, Mr. Netanyahu would provide a conservative government, while Mr. Herzog would provide a center-left government assisted by Ms. Livni. (Even then, the ideological alignment of the latter would be in some doubt because it really consists of a center-left and centrist party.)

No clear winner in sight

Based on recent polling, however, Herzog/Livni alone would win between 22 and 26 seats, far short of a 61-seat majority. Likud could win 20 to 27 seats, also falling short.

Therefore, in reality, getting to a majority (or stable minority government) depends on a range of parties outside the big two or three.

Even the four major left-leaning lists together and the four major right-leaning lists together are expected to win only about 43 and 61 seats each, respectively, under their current best-case projected outcomes. It seems likelier that they will take about 40 or 45 each. That makes this election even more complicated.

Thus, even with four big lists cooperating on each side after the election, either winner would still need to cobble together a coalition – beyond that core four – from the smaller lists expected to cross the minimum threshold to hold seats.

Within the nine other party lists (beyond Labor/Hatnuah and Likud) that are expected to win seats in the Knesset is a veritable pantheon of ideologies.

These run the gamut from communist to right-wing nationalist, from Islamist (the “United Arab List” Party currently represented with three seats in the Knesset) to hardline Orthodox Jewish (e.g., “United Torah Judaism” currently represented with seven seats), as well as everything in between.

What this means in practical terms is that the ultimate policy positions of a resulting coalition could be very contradictory.

Based on past coalitions, it is entirely possible, for example, that Mr. Herzog of Labor could become prime minister, but have extremely right-wing cabinet members outside his own party.

All of the combinations themselves depend on how each party fares in the election and how many seats it can bring to the majority. The electoral math for the smaller parties alone makes one’s head spin, even assuming relatively logical ideological groupings in a final coalition.

The hopeful scenario

One scenario that might actually change things on both economic issues and the question of the Palestinian territories would be a nine-party coalition led by Herzog. Read more