Democratic political systems operate with a set of basic laws or rules or a constitution. These specify how the particular system is supposed to operate. It is how the system was established and how it is supposed to function. These documents—generally written but not always—also explain how the system is to be modified or changed. Historically, those democracies which have followed their fundamental rules best, have lasted the longest.
Great Britain, which does not have a formal Constitution, has been around more or less since the Magna Carta was signed in 1215 with formal power transferred from the Crown to the Parliament by the Bill of Rights in 1689. The United States with a formal Constitution took effect after being adopted in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and ratified by eleven of the thirteen States during the following two years. It has served as America’s fundamental governing document having been amended only 27 times. (Of these 27 amendments, the first ten—the Bill of Rights–were immediately adopted in 1791, and the 18th and 21st—prohibition and its repeal—lasted only fourteen years.)
As much as the British as well as the American systems are under strain today—with Brexit and Trump–it is the case of the Israeli democracy which is presenting even more severe challenges. Recent events in Israel suggest that the time is long past for Israel to consider revising its basic law, under which it operates. Israel’s electoral system is antiquated and broken. Israel is a democratic system in which there is no natural majority creating the constant need for governing by political party coalition. It perhaps reached its nadir during the weeks prior to and following the recent failed elections which are now necessitating another election in September.
In Israel, multi-party systems and coalition government may reflect the finest of democratic values, but they force all the parties to adhere to the dictates of the smallest and weakest party in the group. To ensure a majority, the leading party must make compromises (deals) with smaller parties for jobs, funding, or specific parochial policy considerations. This is especially true for the religious parties.
Much of what troubles the political process in Israel today was present already at the First Zionist Congress, convened by Theodore Herzl in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. Since the establishment of the State, the persistent demands of various religious groups have frustrated repeated political leaders in their quest for a viable political system. Even before 1948, the Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion supported deferring any effort at creating a Constitution to a later date, recognizing the frustrating reality of operating in a multi-party system. To this day, the State of Israel functions with a Basic Law, a series of statutes, plus legal court decisions. There is no formal Constitution and electoral reform rarely has been considered.
The major effort at reform was attempted by Yigal Yadin in the 1977 election. The focus of his newly formed party, the Democratic Movement for Change (Dash) received a remarkable 15 seats—out of the 120 in the Parliament–in its first entry into electoral politics. Dash was composed largely of academics and prominent Israeli citizens who were committed to political institutional reform. Unfortunately, Yadin, the renowned archeologist chose to run in the year where Menachem Begin created the major upheaval in Israeli politics replacing the long- entrenched Labor Party with his Likud Party. While Yadin did join the Government and played a significant role both in the Camp David Accords and foreign policy, he never moved the Government to seriously consider his proposals for institutional reform.
Since that time the only structural reform which Israeli politics has achieved has been to raise the threshold needed by a political party to gain membership in the Knesset from 1% of the vote to 3.25% of the vote, as enacted in 2014. Small party power remains extraordinarily high and coalition governments are the rule. Proportional representation based on party lists does not require parliament to have single-member districts or direct constituent responsibility. Israeli politics operates in a backroom system of secret intra- as well as inter-party, back-room negotiations. As has been evident throughout Israel’s history—perhaps more so today than ever—this system permits corrupt party leaders to manipulate the political system to their will.
Given Binyamin Netanyahu’s failure to form a new coalition and needing to call another election, this could be an opportunity for some Israeli leaders to step forward and reform the system. It is critical for Israel’s future that the next Prime Minister have the political will as well as the skill to move an archaic system into a more responsible one.