Israel: What a Center-Right Nation Looks Like


I read some folks in comments yesterday suggesting that somehow the outcome of the Israeli elections debunks my preference for parliamentary systems. Indeed, I recently heard Hubert Védrine, the former Foreign Minister of France, suggest that the whole key to the problem lay in the Israeli electoral system.

One needs to respond to that on several levels.

First, nothing about the idea of a parliamentary system compels you to embrace the idea of proportional representation via party lists or Israel’s very low cut-off threshold for inclusion in parliament. I would say that party list PR is only appropriate for a small country and certainly not something you’d want to try in the United States, which would be better-suited for something like multiple-member constituencies (as in Ireland) or the current first-past-the-post system. But Israel is a small country and I think this is a perfectly appropriate system for them. If I were to offer a purely procedural criticism it would be that the Knesset has too many members. The Netherlands has a similar electoral system, but its parliament features 150 seats for 16 million people. Israel only has 7 million people and 120 MKs.

That said, it’s just not the case that Israeli security policy is being paralyzed by tiny extremist parties. On the contrary, Israel has normally been governed by coalitions dominated by a large centrist party—first Labor then Kadima—which is precisely the virtue of these kind of electoral systems. Unfortunately, underlying Israeli public opinion has shifted sharply to the right over the past ten years. Likud used to be the main rightwing party. Then, under the government of Ariel Sharon in fragmented into a more pragmatic Kadima faction and a hardline-nationalist faction led by Bibi Netanyahu. Now, Israeli opinion has shifted so far to the right that Kadima, which was founded as a center-right party just a few years ago is now left of the public opinion’s center. And the far-right Yisrael Beitanu party is bigger than center-left Labor and dramatically bigger than left-wing Meretz. Meanwhile, Labor has itself shifted right. A politics dominated, on both sides, by nationalists—ranging from pragmatic nationalists to not-so-pragmatic nationalists to frothing-at-the-mouth-racist nationalists—is not so promising for the cause of peace. But that’s because of public opinion not electoral systems.