Changing Israel's Constitution

Direct Popular Election of the Prime Minister         

Reuven Y. Hazen

Electoral Reform Campaign in Israel

        Electoral reform has always been an issue in Israel. Not a decade has passed without some debate on electoral reform, encompassing practically every possible form of change, without much success.
        The source of recently adopted reforms can be traced back to 1986 when a group of academicians took up the cause for reform and presented an "unsolicited" constitution. Their proposal included an electoral reform which synthesized both parliamentary and presidential systems of government -- the Prime Minister would no longer be chosen by the parliament following post-election coalition bargaining, but would be directly elected by the population in a separate ballot.
        This same group formed the "Public Committee for a Constitution for Israel," a grassroots movement to champion the cause of electoral and political reform. Spurred on by events in the political arena which magnified the malaise of the current system, the movement became extremely popular and focused the growing public demand for reform vis-a-vis the political establishment.
        The 1988 election led to the formation of the second national unity government. Subsequently, four Members of the Knesset (MKs) from across the political spectrum -- including the two major parties in the grand coalition -- submitted separate private members bills proposing governmental reform. All bills included direct election of the Prime Minister.
        Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the two major parties established a bi-partisan committee to look into electoral and governmental reform. The national unity government, however, fell prematurely, leaving the ongoing committee discussions in hiatus. In midst of this confusion, the four MKs decided to move ahead with their private bills, and all four passed their first reading in May of 1990.
        The bills were then submitted to the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which along with four MKs decided to formulate a single joint version to push forward in the legislative process. The common reform plan was presented to the parliament in October of 1991 for a second and a third reading.

Proposals For Voting System Change

        An earlier suggestion for electoral reform had previously begun to make its way through the Knesset. This proposal incorporated two different versions:
        1) the creation of 20 multi-member constituencies of 4 members each, leaving the remaining 40 in a national pool;
        2) the creation of 60 single-member constituencies, leaving the remaining 60 in a national pool while raising the threshold to 2.5%.
        This proposal for introducing constituency-based elections, in both of its variations, was not as successful in passing the legislative hurdles as the one suggesting a new method of electing the chief executive. When it became apparent it was not politically possible to adopt constituency-based electoral methods that would distort pure proportionality in order to attain effective government, the chances for this reform diminished.
        Basing their decision on the successful adoption of the 1977 municipal electoral reform, which introduced direct elections for local authorities, advocates of the constituency reform package switched their backing to the reform which proposed the direct popular election of the Prime Minister.
        It was their desire to bring about some form of change which started the process of breaking the current system of its inability to reform, while subsequently allowing or even necessitating additional reforms. The adoption of direct elections was perceived as the linchpin that would soon allow the reformers to completely transform the current system, which was still largely anchored on pure proportionality.
        After heated debates and much political maneuvering -- including the contentious foray of Israel's President, a largely ceremonial post, into the political arena to prod the process forward -- a diluted form of the first proposal was finally adopted.
        In March 1992, the Knesset enacted the new "Basic Law: The Government," which provides Israel with the distinction of being the only country to have direct popular election of its Prime Minister. By directly electing its chief executive, along with other associated political reforms, Israel will replace its pure parliamentary system with a new regime type that will be unique in the world of democratic nations.

Direct Election of the Prime Minister

        Articles 3 and 13 of the new "Basic Law: The Government" lay down the new electoral system for Israel. The Knesset and the Prime Minister will be elected separately with concurrent, four-year terms. The Israeli voter will thus be asked to vote twice on the same ballot -- once for a party list and once for an individual.
         The Knesset will continue to be chosen by a strict list system of proportional representation with the entire state serving as one constituency. However, the Prime Minister will be selected according to the two-ballot system. An absolute majority of the vote is necessary to elect the Prime Minister in the first round; if that is not obtained, then two weeks later a second round will be held in which only the two candidates with the highest votes in the previous round can participate.
        The new political system is described in several of the articles in the same law. While the Prime Minister is given the power to nominate the Cabinet, a parliamentary vote of investiture is necessary before the Cabinet can begin to function. Moreover, the Knesset not only approves the Cabinet, it can also oust the Prime Minister through a vote of no-confidence, which requires only a majority of its 120 members. The removal of the Prime Minister brings about the dissolution of the Knesset as well, meaning that new elections will be necessary for both. By the same token, the Prime Minister -- with the support of Israel's symbolic President -- has the power to dissolve the Knesset, but such a step would also end the Prime Minister's own tenure and force new elections.
        The law that eventually passed is quite different from the earlier versions that were debated. Two important elements that served to dilute the reform proposal are the vote of investiture and the ability to remove the Prime Minister. In the original draft, there was no mention of parliamentary approval of the cabinet, while the removal of the Prime Minister required an extraordinary majority of 70 members.
        Under these conditions, a Knesset elected with a majority that opposed the Prime Minister would not have had the ability to block the cabinet from
taking office. Furthermore, considering Israel's political history, the need for an overwhelming majority to remove the Prime Minister would have effectively thwarted most hostile constellations from taking this step. These two amendments to the original proposal are currently being re-examined.
        According to the new law, if the Prime Minister faces a hostile majority in the Knesset, each branch will possess a double-edged sword -- the power to oust the other without much difficulty but simultaneously incurring its own downfall. Israeli scholars have described the possible development of such an adversarial situation as a "balance of terror" between the legislative and executive branches.

Israel's Unique Path

        Traditionally, there has been virtual consensus in the academic literature that parliamentary systems are preferable overall to presidential systems. As the focus of executive power in Israel becomes concentrated around and identified with a single individual, Israel will embark on a path leading it away from parliamentarism and toward a more presidential form of government.
        In this respect, along with the method by which its next Prime Minister is to be chosen, Israel is behaving in a unique manner, contrary to the prevalent empirical pattern exhibited by other democratic nations. Israel will straddle the two continua which are used to distinguish different types of electoral and political systems: it will have both majoritarian and proportional elections, and it will encompass aspects of both presidential and parliamentary regimes.
        While the new Israeli electoral and political system is unique, it is also still in the development phase. That is, the institutional modification of Israeli politics is a process which has only just begun. As Israel enters this trial period, it could well become a laboratory for electoral experimentation. Several other countries have also begun to contemplate the direct popular election of their Prime Minister -- Italy, Japan, and Germany, for example -- and will be watching the Israeli experiment very closely.

        Reuven Hazen is a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. This article first appeared in a longer form in Representation, the quarterly journal of the Arthur McDougall Fund.

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