News Analysis: Uncertainty Abounds As Israel Tries New System of Elections

If opinion polls are to be believed, this month’s Israeli elections could create an exquisite irony.

The balloting will be held under a new electoral system that was strongly opposed by the predicted winner of the race for prime minister, Shimon Peres, and strongly supported by the predicted loser, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Had the previous electoral system remained in force – again, according to the latest polls – Netanyahu would have won.

On May 29, Israelis will for the first time vote directly for the next prime minister, where the race is between Peres and Netanyahu.

With the direct election-type presidential election than the British-style parliamentary system, which until now has been the foundation of Israel’s democratic edifice.

Each voter will cast a separate ballot to choose a party in the Knesset contest.

Twenty-one parties are vying for the 120 parliamentary seats, though only 10 or so are expected to garner enough votes to win representation.

Until now, Israelis only voted for the incoming Knesset, casting one vote for a party. The candidate heading that party’s list was in effect the voter’s choice for prime minister, though in practice only the leaders of Labor and Likud ever seriously aspired to the post.

Because no party ever attained a majority under the old rules, the parties would vie after the election, with the top vote-getter appointed by the president to form a governing coalition.

To that end, they would often become embroiled in weeks, sometimes even months, of haggling between themselves over who would take over the prime ministership and form the new government.

Small parties would maneuver between Labor and Likud, seeking the best deal they could get as potential coalition members and constantly upping the ante to advance their own party’s goals.

As a result, the smaller parties could often win political influence that far exceeded their mandate from the voters.

Under the new system – and this is the key reform – only the winner of the contest for prime minister can become prime minister.

And no one but the elected prime minister can form a government.

If he fails to form a government that wins the approval of a Knesset majority within 45 days, a new election for prime minister will take place.

If he fails a second time around, his party must put forward an alternative candidate, who then would run in a third election.

Under the new system, the small parties will lose much of their bargaining power: They can join in the proposed coalition, or they can opt to stay out.

But because only the elected prime minister is capable of forming the government, they can no longer threaten to switch allegiance to another major party to form a government.

The chief purpose of the reformers was to whittle down the inordinate power wielded by the small parties under the old system and to enhance that of the prime minister.

No longer will the prime minister have to feel himself subject to a small Knesset faction whose secession from his coalition could spell a change of government.

Now, a secession leading to the governing coalition’s loss of its Knesset majority would automatically bring about the fall of the government and the dissolution of the Knesset – and, therefore, new elections.

Knesset members would presumably think long and hard before precipitating a coalition crisis – because their own continued tenure in the legislature would immediately be jeopardized.

Despite these considerations, Peres never concealed his grave reservations about the reforms.

He believed, as did many in the political community, that a break with the British system should be made only if the chosen alternative were equally solid and proven.

In Israel’s case, the new system, blending elements of the American, European and British traditions, is a merger – critics say a mishmash – that has never been tried anywhere.

As long as Yitzhak Rabin lived, Peres kept his opposition to the reforms low- key.

Rabin, an ardent enthusiast of direct elections, was an “Americophile” ever since serving as ambassador to Washington in the early 1970s.

He insisted that the Labor Party unite in support of the proposed reforms and rammed it through the Knesset in 1992.

Netanyahu, for his part, defied his party’s parliamentary discipline to stand alone among Likud Knesset members in consistent support of the new reforms.

He believed in direct voting as a matter of principle, and he believed in it in practice as the means to elevate him to the premiership.

Political observers here agree that the enactment of the new system helped him to reach the pinnacle of the Likud Party.

Likud loyalists, who voted for Netanyahu after Yitzhak Shamir’s retirement from the leadership, were acutely aware of their new leader’s attributes as a mass communicator.

But now the Likud candidate must have mixed feelings.

For while Peres, according to all the polls, is faring better in the race for the premiership than his Labor Party and its close allies are doing in the separate Knesset race, Netanyahu is doing worse than Likud and its allies.

Under the old system, Netanyahu’s prospects for winning the premiership would have been much brighter than they are now.

According to the polls, the Likud and the religious parties, which formed the basis of Menachem Begin’s and Yitzhak Shamir’s coalitions during the 1970s and 1980s, have a market edge over the Labor-Meretz alliance that formed the outgoing government with the parliamentary backing of the Arab factions.

Granted, neither bloc has sufficient seats to form a majority in the Knesset, and forces have entered the fray that may well end up holding the key middle ground.

But political observers strongly believe that under the new electoral rules, the centrist parties, such as Natan Sharansky’s immigrant rights party, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, or The Third Way, which opposes an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, will back whichever candidate wins the race for prime minister.

Under the old system – in what may prove a bitter irony for Netanyahu – the Likudled bloc would have been likelier than the Labor-Meretz alliance of winning those centrist parties’ support.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, advocates of the new system are already bracing for criticism and parliamentary attacks once the newly elected Knesset gets down to work.

Many politicians and outside observers say openly that the reform, though clearly intended to rectify glaring weaknesses in the old system, was too hastily legislated and harbors problems of its own.

Only time will tell.

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