Dear Benjamin: Could Electoral Reform be a Catalyst for Peace in the Middle East?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Readers, I’d like to try something a little out of the ordinary today. A friend of mine from when I was doing undergrad at the University of Warwick, Calum Murray, came to me with an idea he wanted both to share and to get my input on. I have decided to help him do both. In this piece, Calum outlines for you his thoughts on how Israel might get more moderate government out of a recent electoral reform spear-headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. After he’s finished stating the position, I’ll come back in to offer my thoughts and dissection. Today’s piece comes out a bit longer than usual, but I’m curious to see if my readers will welcome the added depth that comes with having multiple perspectives on the same thing. If this goes over well, I may do additional “Dear Benjamin” pieces—if you or someone you know has a proposal that might be worth sharing and examining, leave a comment.

I would describe Calum as a Burkean conservative—he believes in the efficacy of relatively small, gradual reforms to resolve over time seemingly large and intractable political problems. Here are his thoughts on how a seemingly small electoral reform might alter considerably how Israeli coalition governments form:

Dear Benjamin,

The Arab-Israeli conflict is certainly not a problem that lends itself to quick fixes. As such it would be impertinent to suggest that decades of inter-ethnic, sectarian and ideological violence underscored by irreconcilable political narratives and brute violence could be resolved with minor tweaking of a legislative system. However, as you know well, I am quite the impertinent fellow, so I would like to put this hypothesis past you.

If you are not already aware, Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition has been struggling for nearly a year to enact legislation that would raise the Knesset’s electoral threshold from 2% to 4%. Whilst this has been welcomed by Yesh Atid, Hatnuah and Labor, minority parties across the political spectrum have cried foul, accusing Bibi and his coalition of a ‘power grab’ and even ‘racism’ for attempting to push out minority parties.

The reason for it is straightforward – the Knesset is notoriously unstable, with only 6 governments serving a full term and not one ever achieving a working majority. By increasing the threshold, political parties are incentivised to pool their votes through pre-election agreements in order to retain seats. If all went to plan, five major electoral blocs would emerge, the Secular Right, Centre, Religious Right, Centre Left, and Arab Coalitions.

Now, 4% is unlikely to make much difference at all, as it would only affect the Arab parties and Kadima, but what about 8%? With only Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu, Yesh Atid and Labor safely beyond the threshold, nearly every party would be forced to at least consider coalition with each of its ideological relatives. Adjusted for the proposed increase in threshold, the shift in distribution of seats within the Knesset would look something like this:

Israel Seat Distribution


At first, this appears to have had little effect – the right still holds a precarious plurality and must invite Centrists into government to pass legislation. If anything, the situation is perceptionally worse, as the religious right has gained substantial ground. However, there are three vital changes we must look at in turn, which I argue could help bring peace to Israel-Palestine:

1)      Coalition agreements are now made pre-election, moderating party policy.

Forcing small parties to secure their survival through higher thresholds encourages moderation of policy through the process of ‘vote pooling’. Confronted with the risk of winning no seats at all, small parties form pre-electoral coalitions based on a common electorate. As each party is dependent on the other’s vote, there is a strong incentive to pursue policies that are supported across the target electorate, encouraging relative moderation.

Where this is most relevant is in the construction of settlements. Religious-right elements of the right often place continued expansion into the Occupied Territories at the top of their manifestos, and insist on it as part of their post-election coalition agreements. As a result, secular-right and centre-left parties have consistently been forced to concede the position of Minister of Housing and Construction to religious-right MKs in order to build coalitions, most recently Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home. This has facilitated the continued expansion of settlements despite opposition from within government.

However, once blocs are created pre-election, small parties are less able to exert this influence, as they are subject to moderation before the election. Take the Jewish Home, for example. As ‘free agents’ after the election, their 12 MKs were free to pressure Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu for the crucial position of Housing Minister, with only the electoral mandate of some 350,000 religious-right Israelis. As both parties had their seats, there was little risk in pursuing what even Naftali Bennett admitted was a coalition of convenience. However, had the Jewish Home been forced to seek coalition before the election, they would have had to make the choice between moderating their policy or joining a religious-right coalition. After all, Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu would have been unwilling to alienate their own electoral base and risk their own electoral success by openly pursuing coalition with a party that rejects Likud’s policies on the peace process.

2)      Post-election coalition agreements are now between large blocs, incentivising centrist coalitions.

If one looks back at the history of Knesset coalitions, one notices an interesting trend. All in all, there is a very good track record of the comparatively centrist parties – what we consider here as the secular right, centre and centre left – forming coalitions with one another. In the past decade and a half, the 28th, 29th, 30th, 31st and 33rd governments have contained substantial numbers of members from two or more of the centre parties. Above all, this is because there is surprisingly little political space between them. However, as mentioned before, there has also been a tendency for centrists to give crucial positions to the religious right, primarily because it ensures the larger centrist party can maintain dominance over its rival centrists.

What electoral blocs would do would be to make post-election bargaining equally as risky with the religious right as with the secular centrists. With parties locked into pre-election agreements, a secular right coalition with the religious right would be just as finely balanced as one with the centre or centre-left. With the possibility of maintaining party dominance by satisfying minority parties no longer an option, it would make much more sense to converge with the centrists on the grounds of more common ideology and more extensive historical relations.

3)      The Arab vote can no longer sustain itself without merging.

The Arabs haven’t had much of a say in this letter, which unfortunately reflects the position of many (but not all) of them in Israel. As a final point, any raise in the electoral threshold would have the effect of pushing out the Arab parties from the Knesset. Although this sounds anti-democratic if not racist, it is certainly not. As with the Jewish and secular parties, they would be forced into pre-election coalition with one another, creating a stronger and more unified Arab movement.

This is essential for peace in Israel, as the Palestinians have long suffered from fragmented representation, leading to factionalism and intercommunal violence in the West Bank and Gaza. Not only would the Arabs be better represented, but they would become bigger players in the Knesset, perhaps eventually establishing themselves as viable coalition partners with the Israeli centre-left. Of course, as with the religious right this would require them to substantially moderate their policy, and to refrain from populist politics including solidarity with Hizballah (as Balad have expressed). Consequently, they would be better placed to protect the interests of Israel’s 1.6 million Arabs, and keep the peace process on track from within Israel.

So, in summary, I believe the main benefits of increasing the electoral threshold could be as follows:

  1. Moderation of party policy across the Knesset.
  2. Moderation of Government policy, especially on settlements.
  3. Marginalisation of extremist elements from the religious right and the Arab opposition
  4. More equal representation of the Arab parties.

Together, I believe these provide the foundation stones for diplomatic and public policy that is no longer so brutally antagonistic to regional relations. More importantly, it’s actually feasible because those parties that hold the most power (the centrists) are those that are supporting it.

So, could it be possible that Israel’s Iron Man could be responsible for a move toward peace? I hope so.

All the best,

Calum Murray

Interesting thoughts, Calum—here’s my take:

Calum may well be right, but there are some reasons to have reservations. I am reminded of a piece I wrote this past October about US politics. The suggestion I was confronting at that time was the notion that if the Republican Party forced the Tea Party to become a third party, that would allow the republicans to moderate and become more politically viable. I concluded that this wouldn’t work in the American context, because we don’t have coalitions—as with the 1912 presidential election, the republicans and Tea Party would split the rightist vote, leaving the democrats with the advantage. However, in a parliamentary system, the suggestion would have been a good one. I note this because the conclusion I reached in that piece ran against what Calum has claimed here—the Republican Party is further right than it otherwise would be because it includes the Tea Party.

To resurrect the political bell curves I used in the third parties piece, here’s what Israeli politics looks like now:

Israel Bell Curve 2013


A right mess, isn’t it? And there are another couple dozen little parties I can’t even fit on there. So what happens once you put the 8% minimum vote threshold in? Calum rightly notes that only Likud, Yesh Atid, and Labor are far enough over that boundary not to worry. The rest of the parties either have to join with each other or join with the main parties. The thing is that it makes a tremendous difference which one of these things they do. There are two broad outputs that are possible:

  1. Israel Looks like Britain—the small parties unite into larger blocs to contend directly with the current mainline parties.
  2. Israel Looks like the US—the small parties join the big parties and radicalize them.

Let’s visually represent the difference. Here’s what happens if Israel condenses its dozens of parties down into 5, making it very similar to the UK (with Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib-Dems, UKIP, and the Greens):

Israelis Acting British


Here the center looks like the Lib-Dems, the secular right approximates the conservatives, the religious right approximates UKIP, the secular left is like Labour, albeit weaker, and the Arabs play a similar role to the Greens. Given that Calum is British, it’s not unreasonable that he would think it would work out this way, and he may well be right.

However, I have two concerns:

  1. While the secular right preferred to team up with the centrists rather than with the religious right in the 2013 election, will that always hold?
  2. Is this the rational way for Jewish Home/Shas/UTJ to pursue influence under the adjusted model?

What if the center party comes to resemble Sharon’s Kadima? When Sharon, as leader of Likud, attempted to evacuate settlements in the name of promoting peace (and preserving Israel’s Jewishness) in the mid-aughts, Likud revolted and Sharon was forced to create a new party. Given that a Sharon-like willingness to evacuate some settlements is reasonably likely to be part of any two-state solution that produces a viable Palestinian state, there may come a point at which the secular right feels closer to the religious right on the most relevant issues. The center party could also collapse outright in popularity, as Kadima subsequently did—given the choice between a coalition with the left and a coalition with the religious right, I suspect Netanyahu and company would choose the latter. Indeed, centrist parties often get the short end of the popularity stick in coalitions. Consider what happened to Britain’s liberal-democrats after they went into a coalition with the Tories:

If however the secular right’s preference for a coalition with the centrists holds, the effect is, as Calum notes, to drag the secular right toward the center by putting it in coalitions with an amalgamated centrist party. But this would surely have alarm bells ringing in the minds of the religious right. What strategy might they pursue to prevent declining influence? It is possible that they might attempt to co-opt the secular right in the same way that religious conservatives in the US have an occasionally awkward marriage to their economic libertarian counterparts. In other words, they might fold up their parties, join Likud, and then drag it to the right. That scenario would look more like this:

Israeli Parties Acting American


This would likely force the left parties into a larger coalition (similar to the democrats, in which the Arab Israelis are forced to join up with the secular left. What would the centrists do?

If they broadly broke to the left, Israel gets a 2-party system:

Israel 2 Party System


If they broke broadly to the right, Israel ends up with a de facto one party state, similar to South Africa’s National Party:

Israel 1 Party State


In any case, it’s not clear that we get Calum’s desired output, a right-center coalition that excludes extremists and is willing to compromise on settlements. It’s certainly possible that Calum’s desired output might well be the result, but it’s possible that the secular right may come to find it has more in common with the religious, either because the centrists begin agitating for settlement evacuations the secular right won’t countenance, or because the religious right actively pursues a strategy of merger and co-option. At the end of the day, there remains a very large portion of the Israeli populace that opposes the kind of compromise necessary to bring the two-state solution about. This part of the population can only be denied influence if the secular right is not nearly so far right as Netanyahu’s rhetoric and policy has suggested it is, such that it is willing not merely to form coalitions with centrists, but ultimately to follow through on important elements of center-left policy.

If you’ve read this far, I presume you think there’s something to this format, so leave a comment on which one of us you think has it right and/or with any other ideas you or a friend of yours might have that would be appropriate to this format. Or, to put it more simply—who won? Who’s next? You decide.