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Electoral Reform in Israel Faces Uphill Battle in Knesset

Legislation to reform Israel’s much-criticized electoral system is facing an uphill battle in the Knesset.

Although the legislation has broad support across party lines, Likud backing for the reforms has eroded recently, following indications by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that he is inclined to oppose the draft bills now in committee. The bills call for direct election of the prime minister.

Some observers predict the measure will die for lack of support at the top. Most agree that prospects for passage before the next statutory elections, still a year away, have dimmed. But the reform lobby is not ready to concede.

Several pro-reform groups published large newspaper advertisements this week demanding that Shamir and his lieutenants honor past pledges to allow Likud Knesset members to vote their conscience on the issue.

While the opposition Labor Party is firmly committed to the proposed reforms, the small parties in the Likud-led coalition, fearful of losing influence, and possibly their seats in the Knesset, oppose them.

If Shamir throws his weight behind the reforms’ opponents, or if the party formally decides to oppose reform, only a handful of Likud Knesset members will likely break party discipline — hardly enough to secure the 61-vote minimum a constitutional measure needs to become law.

WIDESPREAD VOTER DISGUST

Likud, of course, is aware that the popularity of electoral reform is directly related to widespread voter disgust with the present system.

The public’s disaffection began with the collapse of the Likud-Labor unity government in March 1990. Because neither major party commanded sufficient Knesset mandates to govern alone, they turned to the small Orthodox parties, granting those parties influence far beyond their electoral strength.

Many Israelis were furious that the coalition-making machinery was effectively controlled by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Bnei Brak, Eliezer Schach, and his archrival in Brooklyn, the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, who has never set foot in Israel.

Israelis were also repelled by the tactics of Finance Minister Yitzhak Moda’i’s short-lived splinter party, the Movement for the Zionist Ideal, which vacilatted until the last moment, making threats and demands of both major parties, before falling back into the Likud camp.

Such spectacles could be eliminated if voters cast direct ballots for prime minister, effectively ending a candidate’s dependence on the support of splinter factions.

But some academicians believe that direct election of prime minister would be an inappropriate change in a system based on the British concept of Cabinet government closely accountable to parliament, rather than the American system of separate legislative and executive branches.

Some political scientists say more stable governments could be achieved by raising the “threshold” for entry into parliament.

At present, a party needs to poll only one percent of the popular vote to win a Knesset seat, compared, for example, to Germany, where the entry level is 5 percent.

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