Israel’s electoral system is the root cause of the disheartening polarization and superficiality on display in the current election season. Many wrongly point to the egos of our politicians as the underlying reason. In reality, powerful constitutional disincentives for collaboration shape our politics.
Israel is a parliamentary democracy, whereby voters elect parties to serve in the 120-seat Knesset, based on proportional representation. Thus, a party that receives 10 percent of the votes would hold 12 seats. After elections, parties need to establish a coalition of a minimum of 61 Knesset members, the head of which becomes the prime minister.
This system encourages divisiveness among the public. The 34 parties standing for election on Tuesday, Jan. 22 distinguish themselves by inciting and polarizing: religious vs. secular, poor vs. rich, Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim, periphery against center, hawks against doves, and Jews against Arabs. On the right, the joint list of the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu is losing power to smaller parties such as Shas and Jewish Home. On the left, Yesh Atid, Hatnua, Labor and Kadima, respectively, failed to join forces in spite of evident similarities in their vision.
Meanwhile, after the elections, some of these parties will inevitably make up the next government, and many will repeatedly join forces on various legislative initiatives. Hence, while the public is divided, the politicians collaborate.
A reversal of this pattern is readily available with a simple amendment that establishes that the head of the party with the highest number of votes becomes prime minister. This would encourage politicians to join forces in inclusive political frameworks and broad sectors of the population to support two ruling Zionist parties on the right and on the left. It would also incentivize politicians to be centrist and pragmatic.
I hope that such a change will be the legacy of the coming Knesset. The position of the likely prime minister — Benjamin Netanyahu — and the Likud party he heads will be key, as in the current election campaign they have been the primary victims of the current electoral system.
Finally, a thought on the United States: The polarization of American politics and the deadlock in Washington may also result from a crisis in the electoral system. Decades of gerrymandering have turned most electoral districts into either red or blue, breeding ideological politicians who cater to their ideological bases and not pragmatically to the center.
The United States thrived when it was purple. It is merely muddling through when it is red or blue.
Gidi Grinstein is president of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv–based nonprofit aimed at reforming Israeli governance.