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A New Push for Electoral Reform Could Dog Formation of Government

The issue of electoral reform emerged this week as a possible 11th-hour barrier to the formation of a narrow Likud-led government by Prime Minister-designate Yitzhak Shamir.

Shamir has until midnight Thursday before his presidential mandate to put together a viable government expires. As of Monday, he claimed to have the support of at least 61 Knesset members, the minimum needed.

But Shamir was suddenly handed an ultimatum by Rafael Eitan, head of the right-wing Tsomet faction, demanding that the new government give all its members freedom to vote their conscience on an electoral reform bill.

Eitan insisted that Likud guarantee such a bill would be brought to the Knesset for final reading within three months. He made clear that unless he received an explicit commitment, he would withhold his party’s two Knesset votes from the new coalition, leaving Shamir without a majority.

The cause for reforming Israel’s electoral system, which has gained strong support among the Israeli public in recent months, also received a powerful boost Tuesday from mainstream Jewish leaders and opinion-makers in the United States.

They sent President Chaim Herzog a letter urging Israeli leaders of “all parties” to implement a new electoral system without delay.

The problem for Shamir is that the religious parties whose votes he needs to form a government oppose electoral reform, because they stand to lose much of their political bargaining power.

During coalition talks Tuesday, Avraham Ravitz of the ultra-Orthodox Degel HaTorah party called Eitan’s demands “unfair.” He said Tsomet’s ultimatum conflicts with the agreements Likud already has reached with the various ultra-Orthodox parties.

Those understandings are that electoral changes can be introduced only “after mutual consultation,” meaning that the religious parties, in effect, would have veto power over them.

Likud Cabinet Ministers Moshe Nissim and Ehud Olmert conferred Tuesday with representatives of Degel HaTorah, Tsomet and the rightwing Tehiya party in an effort to find an acceptable compromise.

BROAD SPECTRUM OF JEWISH LEADERS

The 50 American Jewish leaders who sent the letter to Herzog on Tuesday, included the current chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and four past chairmen; rabbinic leaders of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewry; and such major philanthropic names as Lester Crown, Alex Grass and Leslie Wexner.

Also signing were celebrities, such as former New York Mayor Ed Koch and violinist Isaac Stern, and such noted opinion-makers as Martin Peretz, Norman Podhoretz, Henry Rosovsky and Mortimer Zuckerman.

The signators, who represent a diversity of political and ideological viewpoints, strongly implied that they consider reform no longer just an internal Israeli problem but one of the entire Jewish people, because of their “deep concern for and attachment to the State of Israel.”

They said they consider reform “long overdue” and “particularly needed at this time,” because “it has become obvious that no government of Israel can today be formed under the current system, except through embarrassing trade-offs.”

Theoretically, there is a Knesset majority for electoral changes. Four separate bills that call for direct election of the prime minister have passed their first reading. The various measures now repose with the Knesset Law Committee.

The two conditions necessary for their passage are speedy processing by the committee and freedom for Knesset members to vote according to their political consciences, instead of party guidelines.

Eitan was forced to deliver an ultimatum on that point, observers said, because he did not trust Likud to honor a commitment to bring about speedy reform once a government is formed if it risked losing the support of the religious bloc.

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