The Coastal Post - June 1999

The Americanization of Israeli Elections


By Rob Richie and Steven Hill

For some observers, the victory of Ehud Barak in Israel's recent elections was the best hope for peace in the region. But the acrimony of the extremely negative campaign exposed divisions within Israel that are far from resolved. These tensions were exacerbated by a recent change in Israeli election methods that also tell us something about American politics.

In 1995, Israel adopted a U.S.-style "winner-take-all" method to directly elect their prime minister. Previously, Israel was a traditional parliamentary democracy, where the prime minister was the leader of the party or coalition of parties that controlled the national legislature. In the country's system of pure proportional representation--which most major democracies use, in some form or another--voters cast their single vote for a party instead of a candidate, and parties earned seats in proportion to their share of votes. Now, Israeli voters still elect the parliament by proportional representation, but elect the prime minister directly in a winner-take-all vote.

This year's elections demonstrated a clear downside of winner- take-all voting when the stakes are high: negative campaigning. The goal in winner-take all is to win more votes than your opponent. Because it is a "zero sum" game, you can win as easily by driving voters away from opponents as by attracting voters to yourself. In fact, it is often easier. All you have to do is find a few good wedge issues, or even better expose a personal scandal. You then can exploit that information in scorched earth campaigns and "divide and conquer" strategies.

With winner-take-all, the last candidate standing wins. Candidates and their consultants use attack ads for one reason: they are highly effective. The only armistice typically comes when the combatants pause to reload their weapons after the election. The resulting tension can be particularly dangerous in a complex, explosive society like Israel; it may be no accident that the assassination of popular prime minister Yitzhak Rabin came after the adoption of the new system.

Negative campaigning is nothing new, but the 1990's have set a whole new standard. Media technology-- the weapon of this war--has changed dramatically. Today, campaigns are waged on a full range of media: the internet, 24-hour television, "push polling" telephone calls, targeted radio ads and more. Campaign consultants and spin doctors have become masters at using the new media and polling to manipulate and capitalize on wedge issues and splits in the electorate.

Not surprisingly, Israel has seen a dramatic increase in negative campaigning and attack ads since moving to winner-take-all elections for prime minister. This increase has been facilitated greatly by American political consultants imported to work on Israeli campaigns and armed with methods honed in our winner take-all elections. Leading Democratic party consultants James Carville, Bob Shrum and Stanley Greenberg and Republican maestro Arthur Finkelstein all played central roles in crafting messages and developing ads for Ehud Barak and outgoing prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu this year.

Those who lament the growth of such negative tactics should realize that it is not the result of politicians or their consultants being "bad" people. Rather, the blame goes to the winner-take- all process itself, which rewards those who wage the zero-sum game of negative politics most effectively. To change how the game is played, we need to change its rules.

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