An Israeli democrat's lament

By Dr. Nathan Cherny
Published January 27th 2003 in Israel Insider

There is a sad apathy as we approach this week's election. Undoubtedly, Ariel Sharon will be returned to power. Undoubtedly his Likud party will be the largest party in the coming Knesset and they will be challenged to assemble some form of coalition. Coalitions of this ilk are based on no sense of global national beneficence, rather on each sectarian party battling for their own membership and specific interests.

The coming coalition is likely to be stitched together between representatives of the settlers, extreme (racist) right-wing parties and the ultra-Orthodox. It is a frightening prospect.

With regard to the Palestinian issue, Sharon has committed himself to a two state solution. His party, however, has elected a list of candidates heavily weighted to those who fervently oppose this approach. The nomination of Binyamin Netanyahu, possibly the most outspoken opponent to the ultimate formation of a Palestinian state, as the Likud candidate for foreign minister makes a sham of Sharon's leadership.

The formulation of the Likud list of candidates is tainted by evidence of overt corruption and a longstanding tradition of nepotism. The environment minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, took great pride in providing well paid positions for party hacks; ministerial appointments based on party loyalty rather than any issue of meritocracy. For Hanegbi, this approach paid handsomely. His loyalty, and support of the party membership and their hip-pockets, earned him the number one position in the party's primary elections. For others, corruption was more overt; bribery and intimidation are well-established traditions in the Likud.

It is one thing to give the "common man" a voice, it is quite another to embrace the most base elements of the county's social fabric. This is especially true in a country with an acknowledged problem of organized crime, stand over men and protection money.

Sadly the Labor list is not much better. Here too, the tradition of nepotistic appointments is strong. Factionalism, self interest and egotism have sadly undermined the credibility of the party as an effective political agent. Indeed, after the coming election, it is unlikely that the Labor party will be a substantial force in the next Knesset.

The Knesset and the process of its formation are in a state of disrepute. Voters, for the most part, feel sadly disconnected from any position of influence. Alienation from the whole political process has become a sorry norm. Politicians and the raucous, uncivilized Knesset are generally held in low repute.

Voters, for their part, have no sense of having a representative in the Knesset. Once on their seats, the only constituencies that Knesset members feel responsibly towards are their own party members. There is little perceived notion of responsibility to the interests of the greater community. From the citizen's perspective, there is no notion of having any real representation. Direct communication to Knesset members is the private domain of wealthy industrialists. The common man has no avenue other than through opinion polls or demonstrations.

There is a real and urgent need to restore the Knesset as a viable and respected house of leaders representing the interests of the voting constituency.

Electoral reform is not a new issue on the Israeli political agenda. It has long been appreciated that the fictionalization of the Knesset in to ten or more parties, leads to unstable and often unworkable coalitions. The usual proposal has been to raise the threshold for proportional representation from 2% to 5%. Though this would still leave the Knesset factionalized, and without any real improvement in the tradition of representation, even this option has been politically impassable.

The problem seems to be in the notion of representatives representing ideologies rather than citizens. The proportional representative system protects the representation of a wide spectrum of competing national ideologies, but at a crippling price of unstable government, lack of direct representation and public accountability, and corrupt and nepotistic intra-party mechanisms.

The proportional representation system adopted by the pre-state Yishuv and subsequently by the state, was inherited from the World Zionist Organization. In its original context, it provided a mechanism for representation of the full diversity of the Jewish Zionist world. As such, it served its purpose.

The adoption of the proportional representative electoral system for the state has been a dismal failure. Never designed to manage a modern state, it has resulted in successive governments have been characterized by instability, special treatment of the sectarian interests of minor coalition parties and a deplorable tradition of nepotism (jobs for the boys). Additionally it has alienated the voters and has left them feeling devoid of meaningful representation.

Israel is in crisis. Every aspect of life is now in turmoil. State and personal security, the economy, relations between orthodox and secular Jews, immigrant issues, problems with an underclass of almost a quarter of a million foreign workers, increasing violence and a general erosion of civil society. Many of these issues have snowballed out of control under the mismanagement of successive unstable governments.

Unstable, ineffectual and increasingly corrupt government is a luxury that we can no longer afford.

I want to vote for a representative. I want to know who I am voting for. I want to know his personal record and political record and to know that the elected member will be answerable to me and my concerns... even if I didn't vote for them. This approach would introduce a new degree of accountability. It would lead, inevitably, to fewer parties and greater political stability, True that there may be less political diversity, but that is a price that I am prepared to pay for stability and responsible representation.

Among so many other pressing issues on the political agenda, the challenge of electoral reform will take courage vision and resolve. Now, possibly more than ever, with the very fiber of the State at stake, electoral reform is an existential imperative.

I hope that we are up to the challenge.

Views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of israelinsider.