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December 22, 1989 - Image 36

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-12-22

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Breaking bread with
his constituents in Beit
Shemesh is Prime
Minister Yitzhak
Shamir.

ZE'EV CHAFETS

Israel Correspondent

F

or the past 40 years,
Israel's electoral
system has been like
the weather. Everybody
complains about it, but
nobody has been able to
change it.
Prime ministers from Ben
Gurion to Shamir have
called for revisions, study
committees have been estab-
lished and disbanded,
legislation has been in-
troduced and defeated, and
the system remains.
This week, a prestigious
band of professors and
parliamentarians from eight
countries met in Tel Aviv
under the auspices of the
Israel-Diaspora Institute's
International Forum on
Electoral Reform. Their
goal: to offer advice that will
help bring about the elusive
change which, they believe,
can make Israel's govern-
ment more stable and
responsive.
"We are not unrealistic,"
said Arye Carmon, president
of the Institute. "Nothing
will happen overnight. But
things are moving in the
right direction. If a year ago,
the chances of changing the
system were 3 percent, today
they are 27 percent, and ris-
ing slowly."
Carmon and other
members of the MI Forum
point to two basic flaws in
the current system.
First, Israel has no elec-
toral districts. Candidates
are selected by their parties
and put on a slate, which
receives a number of
Knesset seats proportional
to its share of the national
vote. As a result, members of
Knesset owe their election to
their parties, not to a par-
ticular constituency; and
this leaves Israeli voters
without direct, personal rep-
resentation.
The second problem is

36

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 22, 1989

The Catch-22
Of Electoral Reform

A conference in Tel Aviv explored
improving Israel's system of elections,
but how do you convince the small
parties to relinquish power?

forming a government.
Under the current system, a
prospective prime minister
needs the support of at least
61 Knesset members. But, in
Israeli history no party has
ever won an outright
majority of Knesset seats in
a national election. Every
Israeli government has been
a coalition.
Government coalitions
come in two sizes — large
and small. Either the major
parties combine forces, as
they have in the present
Government of National
Unity, to form a broad coali-
tion, or one major party
forms a narrow partnership
with small parties.
According to the experts,
neither result is desirable.
In broad based governments,
the two major partners often
work at cross purposes,
which undermines decision
making and efficient ad-
ministration. In narrow co-
alitions, the small parties
gain disproportionate in-
fluence.
This was graphically il-
lustrated in the negotiations
that followed last year's
election. The Likud and
Labor finished in a near
deadlock. Both tried to set
up a narrow coalition with
the Orthodox parties, which
received 15 percent of the
vote, and thus held the bal-

ance of power. Party leaders
held countless meetings
with with rabbinical power
brokers, who demanded
large sums of money for
their institutions, and
religious legislation, in-
cluding the controversial
Who Is A Jew? bill.
"After the 1988 election,
the small parties tried to ex-
tort and bribe the major
ones," says Carmon. "We
need a system that will pre-
vent that in the future."
Largely as a result of their
unpleasant post-election ex-
perience, the Likud and
Labor parties established a
bipartisan committee head-
ed by Cabinet Minister Gad
Ya'akobi, to examine and
recommend changes in the
electoral system.
Members of the IDI task
force serve as advisers to the
committee, and have helped
formulate a proposal that
would divide the country
into 20 electoral districts,
each with three members of
Knesset. The remaining 60
members would be elected at
large, as they currently are.
The Ya'akobi Committee
also suggested reducing the
number of splinter parties
by raising the electoral
threshold for parties from
the present one percent of
the vote cast to four percent.
One key question that re-

mains open is the method for
selecting the prime minister.
Speaking to the IDI forum
this past weekend, Labor
leader Shimon Peres called
for direct elections along the
American model, but many
of the experts were skep-
tical.
"The overwhelming
majority of our participants
feel that electing the prime
minister directly is a great
mistake," said Carmon.
"The main problem is that
Israel has no constitution. If

"The major
problem is
mistrust," said a
Likud Member of
Knesset.

the majority of the parlia-
ment come from one party,
and the prime minister from
another, it could cause seri-
ous complications."
Some of Peres' party col-
leagues were also unhappy
with the proposal to directly
elect the prime minister.
"The problems we face are so
complex that no one per-
sonality can tackle them
all,"said Labor's Mordechi
Gur. "For that reason, I
favor retaining a cabinet
form of government."
Despite disagreements

over specifics of the Ya'akobi
recommendations, and on
the method of choosing the
prime minister, the
members of the IDI forum,
which included parliamen-
tarians and professors from
Israel and eight foreign
countries, were nearly
unanimous in calling for
major revisions of the status
quo.
But, it is far from certain
that the present effort to
change the system will fare
better than previous attemp-
ts.
The major stumbling block
is, as it always has been, the
opposition of the small par-
ties.
"The Orthodox parties
know that a change will
reduce them to their true
proportions," said Carmon.
"Some of the other small
parties say they are in favor
of a change, but in fact they
won't do anything to bring it
about. They are torn bet-
ween principle and a fear of
losing their place in the
Knesset."
On paper, the Likud and
Labor are easily able to pass
new election reform. But
neither wants to alienate the
smaller parties.
"The major problem is
distrust," said a Likud
Member of Knesset who did
not attend th -e IDI
meeting. "Labor hasn't given
up the idea of setting up a
narrow government, and
neither have we. And, to do
that, you need the religious
parties. Everybody's for
changing the system, but
nobody wants to lose the the
possible support of the
religious parties by going
first."
Such a political Catch-22 is
a sure prescription for
stalemate. But not everyone
is sorry.
"At least we know what's
wrong with the system we've
got," said the Likud MK.
"Who knows what will be
wrong with a new one." ❑

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