News Analysis: Prospects for Early Electoral Reform Dim with Advent of Shamir Government

The prospects for speedy electoral reform in Israel dimmed significantly this week after Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s new coalition government was installed.

Despite rapidly growing public support for changes in the way Israel elects its leaders, Shamir was notably less than enthusiastic on the subject when he presented his new government to the Knesset on Monday.

While he did not object to reform “in principle,” he cautioned against abandoning the present system without the most careful consideration of the alternatives.

Having achieved his goal of a Likud-led nationalistic regime by unabashed haggling and deal-making that many members of his own coalition have denounced as demeaning, Shamir appears in no hurry to change the system.

Some of his coalition partners actively oppose reform, notably the right-wing Tehiya party, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and, to a lesser degree, the National Religious Party.

Although they are minor parties with small constituencies, they wield disproportionate political power under the present electoral system and are loath to change it.

The addition of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party to the coalition, now confidently predicted by Likud, would be a further setback to electoral reform.

Agudah’s four votes would give Shamir a comfortable 66-54 vote margin in the Knesset. That would enable him to renege on his promise to Rafael Eitan, leader of the two-seat Tsomet party, who demanded a commitment to electoral reform as a condition of joining the coalition.

NJCRAC SUPPORTS REFORM

The prime minister is bucking a popular trend toward reform that has been gathering momentum in Israel for months.

There is also growing support for Israeli electoral reform among influential Jewish groups overseas. The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, meeting Monday in Indianapolis, called on Israel’s leaders to give reform their urgent attention.

“NJCRAC supports reform of the electoral system in Israel and will support the overwhelming majority of Israelis who seek such reform,” said Arden Shenker, chairman of NJCRAC, the coordinating, planning and advisory body for Jewish community relations in the United States.

Four bills providing for direct election of the prime minister were introduced in the Knesset last month and passed their first readings by substantial margins. They are now awaiting action in the Knesset Law Committee.

Other legislation may be introduced soon that would have at least part of the Knesset membership elected directly by region.

But Shamir was decidedly lukewarm about these ideas Monday. “I am concerned that too much enthusiasm for change, in the wake of the political crisis of the last few months, will cause things to be carried out hastily, throwing out the good with the bad, only to find ourselves trapped in a different system not necessarily any better than the present one,” he told the Knesset.

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