Likud and Labor Jockey for Support As Electoral Reform Bill Nears Vote

On the eve of a scheduled vote to reform Israel’s political system, the ruling Likud bloc was working furiously to ensure its defeat, reportedly through the same sort of haggling with the smaller parties that has fueled demands for electoral change.

The proposed measure would institute direct elections for the prime minister and make it more difficult for the Knesset to topple the government with a no-confidence measure.

Debate on the bill was held over from late last Thursday night by unanimous agreement, and a vote was expected either Monday or Tuesday.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir met with key figures in his Likud bloc to exhort them to bring about defeat of the measure which he fears could endanger Likud’s continued control of the premiership.

Labor is likewise investing massive efforts to ensure that the bill passes.

If the bill goes through this week, the Labor Party leadership reportedly has decided to see support for the dissolution of the Knesset and the holding of early elections — including direct elections for prime minister.

Under Israel’s current system of proportional representation, voters cast ballots for parties, rather than politicians. Parties are awarded Knesset seats based on the percentage of votes they win, and the leader of the party with the most votes usually becomes prime minister.

The two big parties, Likud and Labor, have been courting the smaller parties, which are wavering on electoral reform, with various pressures and incentives.

According to sources quoted Sunday by army radio, the Sephardic Orthodox party Shas was told by Likud figures that its votes on the reform measure would affect the ongoing police investigations of their leaders for fiscal malfeasance.

Despite repeated reports of criminal activities by Shas Knesset members and Cabinet members, the Likud-led Justice Ministry has yet to pursue an indictment.

For their part, Likud officials claimed it was Shas politicians who first proposed this linkage.

SPLITS IN SHAS, NRP

Quite apart from this, Shas had its own internal tensions over the electoral reform.

Rabbi Eliezer Schach, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Degel HaTorah party and traditionally an influential voice within Shas, came out forcefully against the reform bill. But Shas’s patron, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was inclined to support it.

This dispute mirrored their disagreement over supporting the formation of the present Shamir government, a dispute Schach decisively won in 1990.

Another small party straddling the fence was Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai’s tiny Party of the Zionist Ideal. Political insiders said Modai’s vote alongside the Likud could be secured in return for measures by the Likud to ensure his political future — whether as a separate party or back inside the Likud.

The National Religious Party, with its five critical seats, was expected to split 3-2, with Education Minister Zevulun Hammer and party Secretary Yitzhak Levy intending to support the reform bill.

The bill’s advocates were busy over the weekend trying to persuade supportive Knesset members to withdraw their various proposed amendments. In this way, they hoped, the chairman of the Law Committee, Uriel Lynn of Likud, would have no reason to try to withdraw the bill from the floor of the house back to his committee, thereby effectively burying it.

While Lynn has that power under the rules, the tactic is rarely used and has earned the opprobrium of legal academicians and jurists in recent days.

Last Thursday afternoon, the entire opposition walked out of the Knesset chamber to protest what it charged was Likud filibustering to avoid a vote on electoral reform.

Shamir at one point supported the reform bill. But the Likud leader later reversed himself, apparently after polls showed him losing a head-to-head election against Laborite Yitzhak Rabin.

Under Shamir’s prodding, the huge Likud Central Committee voted almost unanimously last month to oppose the reform measure. The bill was thus doomed, according to political observers. But Laborites were said this week to be still hopeful of a narrow victory.

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