Analysis from Israel
The current system is bad; district-based voting would be worse. But those aren’t the only options.
State Comptroller Joseph Shapira and State Attorney Moshe Lador held an illuminating public debate two weeks ago over whether prosecutors should seek to bar municipal office-holders indicted for corruption from running for reelection. Shapira was opposed, arguing that “the public should be the one who judges them.” Fine in theory, Lador retorted, but in practice, “the public has a very limited ability to express its criticism of the conduct of public officials.”

The truth is that both are right. Shapira is right that evaluating a candidate’s fitness for public office – in this case, whether criminal suspicions against him outweigh a record of past achievement – is properly the province of the electorate, not the unelected legal system. Lador is right that in practice, this is often impossible, because aside from mayors, few officials at any level are directly elected. Instead, voters elect party slates whose composition they have almost no say over. Thus the only way to vote against a corrupt individual is by voting against his entire party – something voters who otherwise support that party are rarely willing to do.

In short, Israel’s electoral system forces voters to choose between Shapira’s Scylla and Lador’s Charybdis: either abdicate a cardinal democratic right to unelected legal officials by letting them determine when criminal suspicions should trump a candidate’s record, or accept the impossibility of ousting corrupt officials as long as they retain the backing of the handful of people who determine their party’s slate. In parties without primaries, those people are the party leaders; in parties with primaries, they’re the “vote contractors” – union bosses, clan leaders, influential politicians and others whose voting recommendations are followed by thousands of primary voters.

One solution frequently suggested to this problem, at least on the national level, is replacing the current electoral system of proportional representation with district-based elections, thereby making individual representatives directly accountable to their constituencies. In theory, this would allow voters to oust a corrupt individual without significantly damaging his party as a whole, since worthier candidates from that party could still be elected in other districts.

Yet this proposal has a very serious drawback in a country with as many divisions as Israel has: district-based elections hugely disadvantage small parties. In most districts, adherents of small parties will be in the minority, and in those districts, their votes will be wasted. Thus these parties will at best win fewer seats than they do under the current system, and perhaps not even enough to cross the electoral threshold.

To proponents of district-based elections, that’s a plus rather than a minus: coalitions would no longer comprise numerous small parties, producing more stable governments.

But as Shany Mor, a former member of Israel’s National Security Council, pointed out in an insightful article last year, eliminating smaller parties would eliminate an important safety valve that keeps minorities inside the democratic system rather than outside trying to achieve their goals by violence.

“A society as deeply divided as Israel is – across race, religion, ideology – with such a high tolerance for violence and such a broad familiarity with weapons, should have by all comparative measures long ago descended into civil war,” Mor wrote. “Nearly every other newly independent post-1945 state certainly did.”

So why didn’t Israel? A key factor, Mor argued, is its proportional representation system, which allows almost any group of like-minded people a reasonable shot at winning enough votes to enter the Knesset, and perhaps even the cabinet, and thereby influencing policy from the inside. As long as that hope remains viable, the impetus to resort to violence is low. It’s only when people despair of being able to influence policy by ordinary political means that violence begins looking like an attractive option.

This, incidentally, is also a strong argument against the current effort to raise the electoral threshold from 2 to 4 percent: by making it much harder for small parties to enter the Knesset, this legislation could drive certain small but highly ideological groups to despair of being able to affect policy from the inside and resort to violence instead. Indeed, as I’ve argued before, this is already happening among fringe groups like the extremist settlers known as “hilltop youth.” Having twice seen exemplary democratic efforts to affect policy thwarted by undemocratic means, they no longer believe it’s possible to influence policy through the political process, and are therefore trying instead to deter settlement evacuations by violence.

But not only could district-based elections do real damage to Israel’s fragile democratic fabric, it’s also not clear they would be effective as a corruption-fighting measure. This, too, stems from Israelis’ deep divisions. If one candidate, for instance, favors unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank while another opposes it, or one favors free-market reforms while another advocates more government spending and higher deficits, people with strong opinions on these issues aren’t likely to vote for the other candidate just because their own is corrupt. Instead, they’ll hold their noses and vote for the corrupt candidate who shares their views on the issue they deem most important.

Fortunately, district-based elections aren’t the only alternative to the existing system. Many European democracies have adopted electoral systems that preserve the advantages of Israel’s current proportional representation system while also allowing voters to oust individuals who are corrupt, incompetent or otherwise undeserving of reelection. I’ll discuss how such a system might work in a subsequent article. 

Yet for some reason, the Anglo-American district-based system is usually presented as the main alternative to the current one, and that has done the cause of electoral reform great harm. For with all its flaws, proportional representation has enabled Israel to survive and thrive for 65 years now. Thus even Israelis who don’t consciously grasp its safety-valve function are understandably leery of jettisoning it.

Nevertheless, Israelis are also becoming increasingly worried about public corruption. It’s therefore time for all those who want to step up the fight against corruption but don’t want to abdicate their democratic rights to the courts to realize that the current system has outlived its usefulness – and then to start exploring alternatives other than the Anglo-American model.

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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