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Israel's unity government: a bid to represent the majority

For decades, Israel's system of representation gave tiny parties an outsized voice, particularly on the issue of settlements. The unity government now has a chance to prioritize majority views.

By Correspondent / May 9, 2012

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (l.) holds a joint news conference with Shaul Mofaz, head of the Kadima party which will hook up with Netanyahu's rightist coalition, at parliament in Jerusalem May 8.

Ammar Awad/Reuters

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Tel Aviv

Benjamin Netanyahu’s new unity government arrives with the implication that there is something even more fundamental and pressing for Israel than peace with its Arab neighbors: fixing an electoral system responsible for political instability and outsized influence of minority groups like ultra-religious Jews. 

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Electoral reform was one of the four key goals that Mr. Netanyahu and his rival-turned-ally, Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, in explaining their stunning 11th hour agreement to join forces in a unity coalition that averted near finalized plans for an election in September.

Symptoms of electoral dysfunction include a decades-old exemption allowing ultra-religious men to opt out of army service, and the inability of the government to evacuate settlement outposts built on property which even the government admits is on Palestinian land. 

The culprit is Israel’s system of proportional representation. Experts say it has given rise to a tyranny of the minority that rewards narrow-interest parties representing ultra-Orthodox Jews, Israeli settlers, or Russian immigrants with veto on policy by threatening to implode coalition governments. 

“This means that the majority is under-represented in government and the minority is over-represented,” says Amnon Rubenstein, a law professor and former Justice Minister for the left-wing Meretz Party who is pushing a plan to reform Israel’s system. “This causes cynicism and loss of belief in democracy.”

Seven elections in 20 years

The power of the smaller parties has created notoriously unstable governments. In the past 20 years, Israel has been forced to hold seven general elections. And the last time an Israeli government finished out its term was in 1988. At the same time, support for mainstream big tent parties like Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the Labor Party have suffered a drop-off in support, and are more vulnerable to pressure.

That has created a situation in which Israeli prime ministers are more involved in the politicking necessary to keep their coalitions together rather than policy making or strategic planning.

“Government needs to be able to implement policy in a much more vigorous manner. An American president knows he’s going to be in power for four years, he doesn’t have to waste enormous energies the whole time on simply staying in power,” says Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University. “[Israeli] Politicians spend much too much time going to bar mitzvahs. They spend too much time on politics than policy. The public thinks they’re being cynical, but there’s no other way to govern.”

Israel uses a form of extreme democracy, giving parties with as little as 2 percent of the general vote seats in the parliament.

The upside to the system is that gives expression to the country’s mosaic of ethnic, religious, and ideological groups in the parliament, and then forces them to govern via coalition.

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