Why does Israel fear Parliamentary Constituencies?

“In a national single-seat constituency of 120 Knesset members (MKs), there are no maps on Israeli election night”


The 2013 local municipal elections for the city of Tel Aviv-Yafo were pretty unremarkable in many respects. Turnout was very low at just 28.7%.

A multitude of bewildering and fragmented grassroots and party groupings emerged with council seats.

Typical local elections issues such as transport, affordable housing and municipal services dominated the political debate. There was, however, one striking and locally unremarked-upon peculiarity: there are no ‘locally’ elected councillors in the local elections of Tel Aviv-Yafo because there are no local constituencies, or local area-based geographical representation.

The entire city area, some 52km2 comprising all of its 430,000 residents, is treated as just one constituency. For a municipal or local election, the absence of area-based representation in City Hall politics is (outside Israel) rather unique. The absence of a local area-based or territorial link to local elected councillors may not strike Tel Avivians as peculiar for the simple reason there isn’t one at national level either. In Israeli national elections, the electorate also votes in a single electoral constituency. This may not be unique to Israel, but it is extraordinarily rare.

In the first Knesset elections in 1949, and in every subsequent election thereafter, the entire country of Israel has been treated as one single constituency to elect its 120 national parliamentary members.

It seems reasonable to conclude that the absence of multiple or area-based constituencies at national level informs, perhaps sustains, the apparent lack of appetite or interest in a local area-based or constituency representation in Tel Aviv- Yafo municipal politics.

But what explains this rather unique national Israeli electoral geography, a geography devoid of any local or regional area based political representation?

It has been suggested that the relatively small size of the new Israeli state explained the reluctance to put in place local or area-based Knesset representation. link

This seems, in isolation at least, a rather unconvincing argument. The geographic size of the Israeli state as far as the 1949 Armistice Line is 73%, 53% and 51% the size of Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark respectively – small but not so small. The population of the state in 1949 was, however, very small – just 800,000. By 1955 this had already risen to 1.8 million. By 1965, following massive Jewish immigration, it had climbed to 2.6 million. Anticipated rapid but unpredictable levels of immigration may explain a reluctance to draw and constantly radically redraw constituency boundaries. A tripling of the population in 15 years would have inevitably wreaked havoc on the stability of constituency boundaries.

Unstable international borders or the constant threat of shifting territory would also perhaps have dampened any local appetite to entertain the complexity of multiple constituencies.

Israel as a nation state has lived with unstable or indeterminate borders for almost its entire 70 years of independence. Whether through annexation, occupation, defensive or offensive war, the state of Israel has had remarkably fluid borders since its declaration of independence in 1948.

Today the boundaries of the single national constituency itself remain unclear for the very simple reason that Israel has (multiple) internationally disputed borders. The definition of what even constitutes an international border is contentious. The Golan Heights (occupied Syrian territory since 1967), ’unofficially’ annexed by Israel (1981 Golan Heights Law), is one such border. The 1949 armistice border, Israel’s contested boundary with the Palestinian territories, is perhaps the most challenging.

One further possible explanation for the absence of an electoral geography with multiple member or single-seat area-based representation is that it would have starkly revealed the territorial extent of the concentration of the Israeli-Arab or Palestinian minority population within Israel.

A national constituency-based electoral system that nakedly exposed the regional territorial divisions of Israeli political geography potentially risked undermining a nascent national Israeli (Jewish) narrative of a unified (Jewish) state. More importantly, it may have been viewed as potentially nourishing quasi-territorial secession. A multiple constituency-based electoral geography where Palestinian parties might succeed in gaining 10 or 15 Knesset seats risks visible regional territorial expression on election night. If not entirely erased, the demographic reality or political visibility of this secessionist geography is certainly masked by a single national constituency.

It seems unlikely that in a region of fiercely contested national political space, the preference of the Israeli state for a single national constituency for Knesset elections would not have been indifferent to the reality or challenges of the Palestinian population concentration.

A singular electoral constituency had, and has, the effect of geographically neutralising the Palestinian voting public and the political parties that have historically represented them in the Knesset. They, in effect, became and remain significantly aspatial. They are aspatial in the sense that the Palestinian voting bloc, like all Israeli political groupings, are, whether by design or otherwise, ‘geographically invisible’ on election night.

What is often central to television audiences on election night in other countries simply doesn’t exist in Israel. There are no ‘swing states’, constituency ‘swingometers’ or maps of colourful flipping seats. There are no ‘blue’ or ‘red’ states, no ‘blue’, ‘red’ or ‘green’ constituencies.

Election night analysis is for the most part restricted to the declaration of overall national ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and the perennial Israeli challenge of coalition formation. There is little or no analysis of regional or local swings in the popular vote. For the Israeli television audience, in a country and region torn by territorial division and segregation, Knesset elections are, ironically, aspatial.

The Knesset is conveniently or accidentally stripped of all geography. It’s as if the indigenous Palestinians and the political parties that represent them almost float detached from their territorial roots. They are electorally severed from their geographical and historical connection to the land. Territorial constituencies are, by definition, rooted in territory in the soil of the state itself.

Perhaps a more compelling contemporaneous reason for the current lack of multiple or area-based Knesset constituencies is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, which entered its 50th year in 2017. Following the six-day Israeli-Arab war in 1967 and the subsequent occupation of the West Bank, the Israeli settler population grew at first quite slowly.

billboard airforce

As late as 1972, some 10,000 Israeli settlers were scattered across the West Bank. This ac- counted for just 0.31% of the total Israeli population. By 1993 that had risen to 280,000, or 5.3% of the Israeli population. Today 7000,000 Israeli citizens (99% of whom identify as Jewish in the Israeli census) live in the occupied territory of the West Bank (including annexed east Jerusalem).

Put another way, today 1 in 12 Israelis (1 in 9 Jews) are settlers living in the occupied West Bank. In 1972 the figure was just 1 in 300.

The 700,000 Israeli settler population of the West Bank who reside outside the borders of the internationally recognised Israeli state are nevertheless also eligible voters in Knesset general elections. The West Bank is also home to 2.7 million stateless Palestinians. These 700,000 Israeli citizens, who live outside Israel proper, now make up approximately 9% of the Israeli population.

In a multiple constituency-based electoral system, these Israeli citizens would account for 10 Knesset seats (out of 120).

Another potential reason for the lack of electoral constituencies is the role a lower turnout amongst Israeli Palestinians has in diminishing voting power of Palestinian electoral block in a single national constituency. Electoral boycotts or generally lower participation rates suppresses the electoral weight of Israeli Palestinians.

A constituency-based electoral geography would, however, largely render irrelevant turnout in Palestinian communities. The reason for this is the very concentrated geography of Palestinian populations. The largely Palestinian Joint List secured 97% of the vote in Qalansawe, 96% of the vote in Taibe and Umm al-Fahm, and 95% in Tira in 2015. Election Results 2015

In a theoretical electoral constituency of say ‘Qalansawe-Taibe’ (120th of population of Israel) the Palestinian political alliance Joint List (in 2015) would have secured this notional seat on a 10% turnout, as it would on a 65% turnout. In fact, a constituency-based electoral geography with high concentrations of Palestinian voters but lower turnouts would disproportionately favour the power Palestinian voters who do vote. It may take just 20,000 Palestinians to elect their MK in Umm al-Fahm (with low turnout) as opposed to 40,000 Jewish Israeli voters in, say, Kfar Saba (with a much higher Jewish turnout).

The most obvious political challenge in designing electoral constituencies is how exactly would one delineate the geographic boundaries of these 10 Knesset seats? The drafting of those potential boundaries in a multiple Knesset electoral constituency is likely to prove exceedingly tricky. It presents enormous cartographic challenges with potentially profound political implications.

Notwithstanding these obvious geographic and political challenges, the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) has proposed that Israel should consider adopting a multi-seat constituency system. In a report titled Reforming Israel’s Political System: Recommendations and Action Plan, published in 2011, the IDI proposes the very specific recommendation of ‘instituting a dozen multi-member electoral districts to preserve a high level of proportionality’.

One of those hypothetical electoral districts is called ‘Jerusalem and the Judean Hills’. Presumably this region includes all of the Israel citizens of the Jerusalem and Judea (southern West Bank).

Whatever the preference, whether it be 120 single-seat constituencies or ‘a dozen multi-member electoral districts’, the challenge of how, and more specifically, where, to draw those constituency borders remains the same.

There is no escaping the drawing of lines on a map. There are two potential choices here. The first option would involve drawing the boundaries of the constituencies so that they included citizens (voters) of the Israeli state but excluded the non-voting Palestinians residents of the occupied West Bank. This would, in effect, follow, for the most part, the geographic contours of the Oslo Accords. We call this the ‘ethno-gerrymandering option’.

Area C as defined by the Oslo Accords (approximately 61% of the area of West Bank) is under both direct Israeli administrative and military control. Area C is also home to 400,000 Israeli citizens or Jewish settlers. A further 280,000 Jewish Settlers live in annexed east Jerusalem).

C:DATAREDIDWGIsrael KnessetDistricts of Model (1)

Settler Electoral Constituencies in the West Bank – 10 ‘notional’ Knesset Seats (White Areas – Disenfranchised Palestinian population). 2015 Knesset Election: Likud 5 Seats (Blue) United Torah Judaism 4 Seats (Pink) Habait Hayehudi 1 Seat (Dark Blue) 

The political geographic boundaries of these constituencies would, how- ever, not only be cartographically visually tortuous, they would implicitly deeply embed the Oslo Accords into the political quasi-constitutional apparatus of the Knesset. It would amount to a de facto Israeli electoral withdrawal from half of the occupied territory.

The creation of such official electoral constituency maps would inevitably pose profoundly uncomfortable political questions for the Israeli state. The starkness of these necessarily ethno-gerrymandered tortuous borders would be obvious. The geographic electoral visibility of the extent of existing Jewish-Palestinian segregation and separation if not revelatory, would nevertheless be revealing. It could be argued that even these extreme gerrymandered constituencies could at least preserve a plausible narrative of a democratic and contiguous Israeli State. All those living inside the constituency border would have or be given the right to vote in the Knesset. Those living outside would remain stateless and continue to remain under Israeli occupation.

A second cartographical option is to simply divide the entire West Bank into 10 separate Knesset constituencies, their territorial or geographic size reflecting the local Israeli (almost exclusively Jewish settler population) voting population. These constituencies would thus include the 2.7 million permanent indigenous Palestinian residents of the West Bank who have no vote in the Israeli Knesset. We call this the ‘electoral annexation option’ Any electoral constituency whose territory included long-standing indigenous residents but simultaneously denied those same residents a right to vote would of course be viewed as problematic. The ‘electoral annexation option’ would be better described as ‘ethno-annexation option’. There are other more familiar or appropriate words to describe that level of electoral segregation.

Whatever the choice, be it the tortuous ‘gerrymandering’ or electoral annexation of the entire West Bank/Judea Samaria, both would cartographically or electorally advertise the political reality that 2.7 million permanent residents are currently denied a right to vote (in the Knesset) in the state in which they reside. Perhaps this reason alone explains why Israel since 1967 has not chosen, and is unlikely to choose, to experiment with constituency geography.

The above article is an edited extract from the book Seamless Neighbouhood – Redrawing the City of Israel (Paul Kearns and Motti Ruimy – Gandon Editions 2018) 

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