As most Americans are not familiar with the workings of Parliamentary governments, I thought BJN readers might appreciate a bit of background concerning Bruce Ticker’s remark about the Knesset’s slim
majority seeking to transform the (Israeli) Supreme Court’s authority (“DeSantis Visit to Israel Not All That Kosher” Boulder Jewish News May 4, 2023).
Israel is the size of New Jersey. Its national government consists of a 120-seat Parliament (Knesset) and a Supreme Court. The country is not divided into electoral districts and each eligible voter participates in national elections by choosing one of numerous party lists. Thus, all Knesset seats are filled “at large” (there are no contests involving direct competition of two or more candidates seeking to represent a specific locality).
A party must reach the election threshold (receive a specified percentage of the total number of votes cast) in order to earn seats in the Knesset. No party has ever received a true majority (61 seats) on its own. Thus, every Israeli government has been a coalition, achieved by post-election wheeling and dealing. Thus, the actual make-up of the government may differ significantly from what voters thought they were being offered on Election Day.
For the first four decades following 1948, the Labor parties dominated Israel’s government and a party which had fifty or more seats could easily assemble a ruling coalition by joining forces with others who
might have 10 or 15 seats each, with the head of the largest party becoming the Prime Minister. In the 1990’s, Israel twice experimented with direct election of the Prime Minister. Voters cast two ballots –
one indicating the voter’s choice of party list and the other designating the voter’s choice of one of the two candidates seeking the PM’s office. This experiment freed Israeli voters to choose lists unlikely to garner many Knesset seats without losing their opportunity to have input on the choice of Prime Minister.
From the time that direct election of the PM was dropped, no coalition in Israel has ever held significantly more than a 61-seat majority. All governments have ruled with “fragile” majorities, with each coalition in danger of falling if only a few members choose to leave the Coalition and join the Opposition, giving small parties inordinate power within the Coalition (a characteristic seen very often in governments chosen by Proportional Representation, as is the case in Israel). Knowing that its term in office may be short (Israel had five elections in the past four years), Coalitions tend to try to push their agendas through too quickly, as seems to be the case with the initial effort (now delayed) for judicial reform.
Clearly, this problem goes beyond attempting to find the proper balance between the Knesset and the Supreme Court. Israel needs to undergo electoral reform, finding a way to have fewer, more stable parties which the voters can hold accountable for keeping their electoral promises or not. Israel might also consider changes made in recent years in New Zealand’s electoral system which moved from Proportional Representation to a system in which some members of Parliament are chosen from party lists and others are chosen by direct election of representatives in electoral districts (MMP: Mixed-Member Proportional).
Toby F. Block