PM Benjamin Netanyahu (Likkud) and opposition leader Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) announced a last-minute coalition agreement that will push off Israel’s elections for as much as another 18 months. The new coalition, with over 90 seats, more than 75% of the total seats in Knesset, is Israel’s largest coalition in decades.
Immediate reactions have focused on Mofaz’s 180-degree turnaround on joining a Netanyahu-led government, what this might mean for Israel’s stand on Iran, and on the reality that the upcoming election, now delayed, was going to cost Kadima as many as 14 of their 28 seats. The coalition agreement puts Kadima in charge of reforming the Tal law that has long exempted Hareidi Jews from military service, and in charge of renewed engagement with the peace process. That Kadima was charged with both of these quagmires is also a topic of interest.
Yet it is another aspect of the agreement that caught my attention. Mofaz explained that Likud and Kadima have agreed to reform the electoral system, and that this was his “dayenu” condition – that just this agreement would have been sufficient to lure him into the governing coalition.
The details of the proposed reform are not yet clear, but indications are that they will include regional representation for half of the Knesset seats. Parties will also have to win at least 3% of the popular vote to gain seats in Knesset, up from the previous threshold of 2%.
How will those reforms actually play out? Raising the threshold means that the smallest party that can sit the Knesset will be four seats. Three parties in the current Knesset are smaller than that. But how will regional representation actually work? How will parties choose which candidates should compete in local races and which should be placed on the national list? Will voters now vote twice, once for their local representative and once for a party? Geographical representation tends to favor concentrated populations who can guarantee the election of a candidate from their district. This seems to benefit settlers, Hareidim and Arab parties, whose populations are concentrated in relatively few areas. The emerging logic of Israel’s representational map and districting will unfold in unpredictable ways. Nevertheless, the idea of electing MKs to the Knesset in two vastly different ways reminds me of a joke: One day, the British decide to change over and drive on the right side of the road. After a period of study, a committee of bureaucrats and experts agree that the change should be phased in, starting with only the trucks.
The last time Israel engaged in major electoral reform it was to provide for direct elections of the Prime Minister, starting with the election of 1996. That ill-conceived reform shattered the power of the major parties, as ticket-splitters voted for a mainstream candidate for Prime Minister and a special-interest party for Knesset. Even after the reversal of that reform, the large parties have not fully recovered, and no party in Israel command as much as 25% of the total seats. Will this new reform bring greater stability, or a new set of unexpected consequences? Will there even be any reform at all?