Is our political system really so much better than Israel's?

by Eve Robert // Published February 17, 2009
Bipartisanship is the buzz-word of the major media these days. Everyone seems abashed and disappointed to see Obama unable to launch "a new era of politics in Washington", in which not only the 52% electors that voted for him, but also the 48% that did not, would be truly taken into account in the policy-making process. Blaming Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi or the Republican leadership for the failure of bipartisan politics does not make any sense – instead, we should blame our electoral system… In the meantime, in Israel, Livni and Netanyahu are both trying to build coalitions, and journalists seem very busy blaming the rise of the party of ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman (which scored a third-place) as well as the absence of a clear majority (a real tragedy, according to the same medias, who seem to forget that such coalition- building processes are a common feature in many democracies around the world, including Germany, Poland, New Zealand… ) on proportional representation.

But is our political system really so much better than Israel's ?

The Washington Post recently reported that even though the right wing parties, including Israel Beitenu, could easily gather to form a Likud-led coalition (65 seats), this may not be the option favored by Netanyahu. He may actually prefer to form a broader coalition that would include not only Yisrael Beiteinu, but also Kadima and perhaps the Labor, so as not to be excessively dependent on Lieberman and on other small hardliner parties. Indeed bipartisan governments supported by both major parties are very common in Israel, and allow for pragmatic, consensual policy-making. They are often the option favored by the biggest parties when trying to form a coalition, precisely because they leave no room for disproportionate influence of small, extremist, sectarian parties.

Furthermore, under a U.S-style political system, Lieberman and its supporters would have to exist within the framework of a center-right party, in which he would be an influential force. As Matthew Iglesias puts it:

" He and his followers would be the "base" of his party (…) But more to the point, the larger center-right party would be anchored to the base's views. Under the current Israeli system, there's no procedural rule forcing Netanyahu to govern in coalition with Lieberman. The current electoral results are consistent with a center-right coalition grounded in a Likud-Kadima partnership. By contrast, in the U.S. system only coalitions that start at the extreme and work inwards are viable on anything other than a spot basis. And one consequence of this is that centrist dealmaking tends, à la Nelson-Collins, to devolve into inane horse-trading rather than a genuine effort to develop a synthesis of ideas."

We should not forget that proportional representation systems- even Israel-style ones-force political parties to form coalitions and compromise on extremist positions. Harsh contempt of PR electoral systems may be a bit inappropriate on behalf on a country stuck in winner-take-all unrepresentative, unilateral politics