Thursday, April 10, 2008

proportional representation

Earlier this week we spent our dinner hour watching Jonathan Demme's film, Jimmy Carter Man from Plains. It's a fine movie though its eulogistic tilt can be annoying (however much agreed with). Discussion of opinion within Israel about the rights of residents in the Palestinian territories reminded me about the perils of proportional representation, a well-intentioned electoral policy from which Israel suffers.

Today, the papers tell us Carter will soon be meeting with an exiled Hamas political leader in Syira. The accounts bear out something that's made plain in Demme's film: While popular with Jewish voters in the U.S., Israel's policy of ostracizing Hamas is not universally approved within Israel. A recent poll, reported by the Israeli paper, Haaretz, showed a surprising 64 percent of Israelis to favor direct talks with Hamas. I've quoted the article below.

The connection with proportional representation is not brought out in the news accounts but seems plain to me. PR results in coalition governments in which minority parties can frequently dictate policy. As I understand the situation, Israeli settlers in the territories are supported by one such minority party which, as things turns out, has sufficient leverage to insure that Israel rules out any possibility of negotiation as it continues to use military force against Hamas and the Palestinian terrorists in the territories. This policy results in actions aimed at protecting Israeli settlers at the expense of the Palestinian population in general (that is to say there is little attempt to protect the civil rights of Palestinians, at least partly on the assumption that since they elected Hamas, they must sympathize with the terrorists though not engaging in terrorists acts themselves).

Here is the official Israeli explanation of its proportional representation system:
The Electoral System in Israel

Israel has an electoral system based on nation-wide proportional representation, and the number of seats which every list receives in the Knesset is proportional to the number of voters who voted for it. The only limitation is the 1.5% qualifying threshold. In other words, a party must receive at least 1.5% of the votes in order to be elected. According to this system, the voters vote for a party list, and not for a particular person on the list. Since the institution of the primaries system in some of the parties, these parties directly elect their candidates for the Knesset. Some of the parties elect their candidates via the party's institutions. In the ultra-religious parties their spiritual leaders appoint the candidates. The Knesset elections take place once every four years, but the Knesset or the Prime Minister can decide to hold early elections, and under certain circumstances can serve for more than four years.

The electoral system
Israel has an electoral system based on nation-wide proportional representation. In other words, the number of seats that each list receives in the Knesset - the House of Representatives - is proportional to the number of votes it received. Unlike most of the Western parliamentary democracies, the system in Israel is followed in an extreme manner, and the only limitation on a list which participated in the elections being elected is that it should pass the qualifying threshold, which is currently 1.5% (until the elections to the 13th Knesset the qualifying threshold was only 1%).

Historical background
The State of Israel inherited the rigid system of proportional representation from the political system of the yishuv (the organized Jewish community) in mandatory times. This system was based on the zeal with which the various political parties - in which ideology and personalities played a major role - fought to preserve their independence. The justification given for the large number of parties resulting from the system was, that in a period in which major, far-reaching and rapid changes were still taking place in the population make-up as a result of immigration, it was important to enable maximal representation for various groups and opinions.
Here is the text of the Haaretz article on the opinion poll:
Sixty-four percent of Israelis say the government must hold direct talks with the Hamas government in Gaza toward a cease-fire and the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Less than one-third (28 percent) still opposes such talks.

The figures were obtained in a Haaretz-Dialog poll conducted Tuesday under the supervision of Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University.

According to the findings, Israelis are fed up with seven years of Qassam rockets falling on Sderot and the communities near Gaza, as well as the fact that Shalit has been held captive for more than a year and a half.
An increasing number of public figures, including senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces' reserves, have expressed similar positions on talks with Hamas.

It now appears that this opinion is gaining traction in the wider public, which until recently vehemently rejected such negotiations.

The survey also showed that Likud voters are much more moderate than their Knesset representatives. About half (48 percent) support talks with Hamas.

In Kadima, 55 percent are for talks, while among Labor voters, the number jumps to 72 percent.

With regard to Tuesday's High Court ruling rejecting petitions against ex-president Moshe Katsav's plea bargain, about half of those polled said the decision was not justified.

Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, who was part of a minority position against the plea bargain, can thus take some comfort that many people are with her. About one-third of those polled supported the majority opinion in favor of the plea bargain.

On the suspended sentence and fine Katsav is likely to receive, about half of those asked (47 percent) said the sentence was not harsh enough, as opposed to 29 percent who said the punishment was "fitting," and 8 percent who said it was "too harsh."
Here is a link to the news account in the Washington Post which brought the poll to my attention: Former President Carter to Meet With Hamas Chief. The relevant paragraph reads: "However, Carter's trip would also come at a time when a growing number of experts in the United States and Israel have argued that isolating Hamas is not productive. A poll published in February in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that 64 percent of Israelis favor direct talks with Hamas. Both Efraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad spy agency, and Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former foreign minister, say Hamas can no longer be ignored."

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