News Analysis: Prime ministers power grows stronger under new rules

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JERUSALEM — As Israel's first directly elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu will wield an unprecedented power.

And that power will be critical both now, as he works to form a coalition, and later, when the Likud leader begins to govern.

Although it is still much too early to speculate on just what policies Netanyahu will pursue, Israel's youngest prime minister will be free to stand up against any forces that he chooses.

Netanyahu has said he intends to present his Cabinet to the Knesset when it convenes for its first session Monday, June 17. And his Likud Party will have more Cabinet positions than his prospective coalition partners, who together won more seats in the incoming Knesset.

As he begins selecting his ministers — by law he has up to 45 days to assemble his government for Knesset approval — potential coalition partners know that there is no one else to talk to.

"I'm sure we can work it out," said National Religious Party leader Zevulun Hammer. "I'm not threatening."

The veteran NRP leader's unthreatening tone, so different from the atmosphere at the start of coalition negotiations in the past, reflected the major changes in Israeli politics resulting from the new electoral system.

Under Israel's new electoral system, which was designed to curb the powers of smaller parties, only one person can be prime minister: the person elected directly by the people.

And after his narrow victory May 29 over outgoing Prime Minister Shimon Peres — by a margin of 50.4 percent to Peres' 49.5 percent — Netanyahu is that person.

Because there is no alternative prime ministerial hopeful for the small parties to play off against Netanyahu, they cannot, as they might have done in the past, keep upping the ante in their quest for the best terms for their followers as the coalition negotiations proceed.

Potential coalition partners have just two options: Accept Netanyahu's terms or refuse to join the new government. If enough parties bow out, that would mean new elections and the prospect of losing all the impressive gains they made in last week's Knesset elections.

Netanyahu won the direct vote for premier by less than 30,000 votes.

But the margin of his victory is irrelevant: He will be the next prime minister, and all the rest of the political community in Israel will have to get used to the rules of play that his premiership, under the new electoral system, is introducing.

Netanyahu's strengthened position will be evident as he conducts coalition negotiations and when he begins formulating the policies of his new government.

The first Israeli politician to feel the cold blast of the new regime was the man who claims much of the credit for Netanyahu's victory: Ariel Sharon.

In a lengthy interview Friday of last week, Sharon spoke of how he had engineered a merger between Likud and the Gesher and Tsomet parties and how he had "conducted countless meetings and contacts with every shade of Orthodox and rabbinical leadership" to help lead Netanyahu to victory.

Sharon then went on to assert that the accords with the Palestinians calling for an Israeli army redeployment from most of the West Bank town of Hebron "will have to be reopened and revised."

He also called Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "a premeditated mass murderer," spicing the interview with a variety of other hardline policy statements.

He had barely concluded his remarks when Netanyahu's office issued an official statement saying bluntly that the prime minister-elect was the only man to enunciate policy for the new government.

Other purported statements of policy were to be ignored, the statement from Netanyahu's office added.

Sharon has not spoken out again. By Monday, relations between him and Netanyahu were said to be somewhat strained.

Sharon, who is thought likely to be named the new finance minister, is learning the meaning of a system that provides for a directly elected prime minister chairing a Cabinet of politicians who were not themselves directly elected, but sit as the representatives of their parties.

The smaller parties that Netanyahu hopes will join a coalition include the National Religious Party, Shas, United Torah Judaism, The Third Way and Yisrael Ba'Aliyah.

Just as these parties' negotiating clout is weaker than under the old electoral system, the power of Likud figures themselves to demand specific portfolios has diminished.

Sharon, for example, would prefer the defense or foreign ministry portfolios. Yitzhak Mordechai, the No. 2 man on the Likud Knesset list, also wants the defense portfolio.

But Netanyahu may offer this key post to Dan Meridor or Ehud Olmert, both considered Likud moderates — and there is little the other candidates can do about it.

Moreover, Netanyahu will be able to dismiss ministers with much less of a fallout than in the past.

Because of the new electoral system, ministers will not threaten to bring the government down; no-confidence votes in the Knesset will not take place as often.

Whoever is appointed defense minister is likely to be seen in the region and the world as the first indication of the direction of Netanyahu's policies.

In a masterful victory speech to thousands of cheering followers at Jerusalem's International Convention Center on Sunday night, Netanyahu pledged to proceed with the peace process.

"We plan to advance the process of dialogue with all our neighbors in order to achieve a stable peace, a real peace, peace with security," he said.

"Tonight I stretch out my hand in peace to all Arab leaders and to our Palestinian neighbors," he said. "I call on you: Come and join us, come and let us go in the direction of a real peace."

But he made no specific mention in the speech regarding an Israeli redeployment in Hebron or about his intentions concerning Orient House, the Palestinian Authority's de facto headquarters in eastern Jerusalem.

Hardliners in Netanyahu's own party and among his potential coalition partners want the redeployment postponed indefinitely.

And Netanyahu himself promised in his campaign to shut down Orient House when he came to power.

But either step could trigger a wave of unrest throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In the coalition negotiations, Netanyahu shocked his potential partners by saying that Likud would occupy 10 of the available 18 portfolios in the Cabinet, including the top posts: the Defense, Foreign and Finance ministries. In the past, portfolios were apportioned on the basis of the number of Knesset seats held by the respective parties.

Because many voters split their votes in the separate balloting for prime minister and the Knesset, both Likud and Labor lost a significant number of Knesset seats to the smaller parties.

The upshot is that the dominant party in the coalition, Likud, will have less Knesset seats than its allies.

But under the new system, the power of the prime minister is such that he can appoint his Cabinet virtually at will.

Although speculation about Cabinet appointments abounds, the only certainty at this point appears to be David Levy as foreign minister, a position he has occupied before.

The smaller parties do not like the system of allotment, but under Israel's reformed electoral rules, there is not much they can do about it.