Israelis consider changing voting system


JERUSALEM, Dec. 4 (JTA) – As America wrestles with the question of who won its election, Israeli politicians this week were arguing over how, when and even if to hold their election two years ahead of schedule.

At issue is a call to change the present “direct elections” system – in force only since 1996 – under which voters casts separate ballots for the prime minister and party of their choice.

Israelis complained for years that the old, British-style proportional representation system concentrated too much power in the Knesset at the expense of the prime minister.

Yet now that both prime ministers elected under the new system have been voted out of office after completing less than their full terms, many Israelis are clamoring for the relative stability of the old school.

University academics and reform-minded politicians designed the direct elections system in the early 1990s to nudge Israel toward the American presidential system. The widespread feeling was that the old system gave the little parties, especially the Orthodox parties, disproportionate power, allowing them to play the big Labor and Likud parties against each other.

Contrary to most expectations, however, the new system has in fact encouraged the growth of small splinter parties, further undercutting the clout of the traditional blocs and making Israel almost an impossible country to govern.

Labor and Likud have seen their Knesset delegations shrink radically under the new system to a combined total of just over 40 out of 120 seats, and many in both parties now favor a return to the old system.

The legislation to bring back the old system, however, requires an absolute majority of 61 Knesset members. Advocates of the old system, including ideological opposites Moshe Arens of Likud and Yossi Beilin of Labor, were working overtime this week to drum up the extra votes needed.

That puts them at odds with the two likely contenders for prime minister in the upcoming election, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom believe they can fare better under the direct election system rather than be tied to their party.

Netanyahu in particular is said to be trying to persuade members of his Likud Party to stay with the new system.

By midweek, arguments over the system were threatening efforts by the two large parties to agree on a date for new elections, following the Nov. 28 vote giving initial approval to a bill to dissolve the Knesset. The bill must pass two more votes before becoming law.

Labor and Likud leaders were intent on setting a date for elections in late spring or early summer.

But political pundits said enthusiasm for early elections seemed to be perceptibly waning in the Likud, perhaps because of warnings from smaller parties that they would withdraw their support for the early election bill if legislation moves ahead to restore the old voting system.

Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, leader of the secular Shinui Party, said Monday that “if the election law is changed, there will be no” early election.

In an unlikely alliance between two archenemies, Knesset members of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party took much the same position as Shinui, saying their party also would reject the early election bill if the Likud backs the drive to revert to the old electoral system.

Under the old system, each voter had only one ballot, which he cast for the party of his choice. After the election, the Israeli president would consult with all the parties and then confer upon the leader of one party – almost always the largest party – the task of forming a government.

That leader would then set about forging a coalition with other parties because no single party almost ever wins an outright majority in Israel.

If the government loses its majority during the course of the Knesset’s term, the president could ask the leader of another party to form a government.

Under the present system, by contrast, if the prime minister falls by a vote of at least 61 of the 120 Knesset members, there is no way for another legislator to be named prime minister, and new elections must be held.

The framers of the law thought this would deter the Knesset from voting out the prime minister because Knesset members themselves would be forced to fight to retain their own seats in new party primaries and general elections. This, they thought, would both increase the stability of the system and strengthen the prime minister relative to the parliament.

But the experiences of Netanyahu and Barak seem to disprove that logic.

In both cases, Knesset members did indeed vote to oust each prime minister before he had served less than half his term, despite putting their own seats at risk in new general elections.

This week, however, there were some signs that the logic behind the new system is working after all, albeit belatedly.

Political insiders suggested that throughout the Knesset there are increasing signs that members are reluctant to be tossed into an election campaign barely 18 months into Barak’s term, and are having second thoughts about last week’s vote to go to early elections.

In fact, senior Labor and Likud figures are still negotiating over a possible national unity government, hardly the way for rival parties to behave on the eve of a no-holds-barred election campaign.

Labor’s Elie Goldschmidt, chairman of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee, said Monday that these unity efforts had been “blessed by the men who matter” a broad hint that Barak and Ariel Sharon, leader of Likud, are behind the move.

This immediately gave rise to speculation that, despite last week’s vote to go to early elections, Barak and Sharon are still seeking ways of submerging their policy differences and setting up a unity cabinet in order to keep Netanyahu from making a political comeback.

Returning Monday from a lecture tour and business trip to the United States, Netanyahu said he would make up his mind “soon – not in days, but not in weeks either” – about whether to re-enter politics.

With polls showing Netanyahu as the most popular potential candidate, it is widely expected that he will decide to run.

Not everyone in his own Likud party is happy about that prospect. Making the early elections a little less early, after all, would be one means of stopping the Netanyahu bandwagon before it even gets rolling.

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