Israel’s legislators voted last week to streamline the country’s electoral and governing systems – and no one was more gratified by the news than Los Angeles entrepreneur Izak Parviz Nazarian.
For all of Israel’s amazing achievements since independence, its citizens live within a legislative and executive framework frequently labeled “dysfunctional,” and which has resulted in 33 changes of government during the past 65 years.
Reformers have tried to change the system, as well as draw up a constitution, ever since the state was born. Surprisingly, in only two days, March 11 and 12, the Knesset took significant steps to establish a more responsive and workable system.
When Israeli citizens go to the polls, they vote not for a candidate to represent their district but for a national party slate. After each election, the 120 Knesset seats are allotted according to the percentage of the votes for a given party, and until now a slate needed only two percent of the national vote to qualify for a voting voice in the legislature.
The result has been a proliferation of factions and splinter parties, and no single party has ever won a majority of the nation’s votes. This, in turn, has led to a succession of unstable coalitions, in which the smallest partner can threaten a coalition breakup if its specific, and often narrow, demands are not met.
With the opposition parties boycotting last week’s sessions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and its allies unanimously raised the threshold for a party’s qualification for Knesset membership from 2 to 3.5 percent of the national vote.
This may not appear as a major improvement, but if in effect at the last election would have disqualified two of the 12 factions now represented in the Knesset.
The struggle for such changes has been waged for decades and was joined 10 years ago by a new and unlikely player in the person of Izak Parviz Nazarian.
Born in Iran, Nazarian was wounded as a tank driver in Israel’s War of Independence, emigrated to Los Angeles and made a fortune in the high-tech industry and as a venture capitalist.
In the fall of 2004, he sent out invitations to the founding dinner of the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI).
The Journal announced the event under the headline “A Man, A Plan, Electoral Reform,” and the opening paragraph read:
“There are public dinners for good causes and others to honor worthy community leaders, but the one called by Izak Parviz Nazarian aims at nothing less than changing the way Israelis choose their government.”
Over the past decade, CECI has organized far-reaching educational and lobbying efforts in Israel to introduce a form of the American presidential or British parliamentary systems into Israel and make the government more accountable to its citizens.
Nazarian has been aided by his family, particularly two of his daughters, Dora Kadisha and Soraya Nazarian. A number of other organizations, especially the Israel Democracy Institute, have been working toward the same goals.
Two other planks of the CECI platform were also passed under the Knesset’s Governance Bill. One provision restricts the number of “no confidence” votes, now unlimited, which can dissolve a sitting government. Another limits the number of cabinet ministers -– frequently appointed as political payoffs –- to 19.
Passage of the three bills was strongly denounced by an unlikely coalition of opposition parties, representing such disparate constituencies as ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arab nationalists and left-wing Israelis.
However, in Los Angeles, Nazarian was buoyed by the Knesset votes and by such media headlines as “Governance Bill is a game-changer for Israeli politics” in The Times of Israel” and “How an Iranian changed Israel’s electoral law “ in the Jerusalem Post.
In a statement, Nazarian promised not to rest on his laurels. “This is a great victory, however it is only the first step,” he said. “More changes are necessary, such as regional elections which will strengthen the connection between voters and elected officials.”