Likud May Forfeit Electoral Reform to Meet Demands of Orthodox Party

A reported promise by the Likud bloc to oppose electoral reform and human rights bills in the Knesset, in order to assuage ultra-Orthodox concerns, has outraged its chief coalition partner, the Labor Party, as well as the left-wing opposition.

The pledge is part of a package of concessions that Likud seems willing to make to keep the Agudat Yisrael party from leaving the governing coalition.

Likud is determined to prevent the Agudah from joining a new, narrowly based government, headed by the Labor Party.

Aware of this, the Agudah’s governing Council of Sages had ordered the party to quit the government if its demands were not met in two weeks.

Two Likud ministers, Moshe Nissim and Ronni Milo, have been negotiating with Agudah politicians since the ultimatum was given. They seem ready to abandon electoral reform and human rights, and to accede to the Agudah’s religious demands.

Those include more generous subsidies for Orthodox schools, tighter enforcement of Sabbath observance and the elimination of “lewd” advertisements that offend the pious.

But there is still no final word from the Agudah’s political and spiritual leaders whether indeed Likud’s concessions are sufficient to keep the party in the government.

Up until now, electoral reform has been as strongly supported by Likud as it has been by Labor, though fiercely opposed by smaller parties such as the Agudah.

LABOR WILL PUSH FOR REFORM

Labor Knesset members announced they would introduce the reform legislation as a private members bill. They said it would be identical to the measure drafted recently by a committee of Likud and Labor ministers.

The committee was created under the terms of the Likud-Labor coalition agreement of December 1988, on which the present unity government is based.

It recommended that part of the next Knesset be elected on a regional basis and part under the old system of proportional representation.

The idea is to create a measure of personal contact between legislators and their constituents, which is lacking under the proportional representation system.

Israeli voters now cast ballots for party lists, not individuals. The candidates on the list are selected internally by each party.

Whether or not they get a Knesset seat is determined by the order in which their names appear on the ballot and the percentage of the popular vote their party wins.

This system, which has prevailed since the state was founded, has prevented any single party from accumulating an absolute governing majority. Israel has always been governed by coalitions beset with political and ideological differences.

Moreover, the system has given inordinate political clout to the religious parties, which collectively rarely win more than 15 percent of the vote.

But they are able to dictate terms to the government, since neither Labor nor Likud has ever amassed enough popular votes to govern without them.

Still another reform measure recommended by the Likud-Labor committee was to raise the number of votes required by a party to enter the Knesset. Since it would automatically eliminate the many splinter factions on both left and right, it is opposed by most of them.

But while Likud recognizes the urgent need for such reforms, it seems more concerned in the short run to appease the Agudah. The reason is the shaky condition of its coalition with Labor, which could break up soon because of profound differences over the peace process.

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