Early elections provoke renewed drive for reform

NEW YORK — Election reform proponents in Israel are racing against the clock to restore the old system of selecting a prime minister before voters return to the polls in the spring.

"If we don't succeed before the next election, it will be a tragedy," says Arye Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a research and advocacy group in Jerusalem that is spearheading the campaign to repeal the law governing the direct election of the prime minister.

That law, first implemented for the 1996 elections, is the underlying source of factionalism that has bedeviled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, say the reform advocates. They believe it is likely to lead to an Israeli government that is no stronger — and perhaps weaker — than the Netanyahu coalition.

The campaign has gathered steam in the weeks after the two major political parties suffered large losses in municipal elections across the country. Fears that the next round of national elections may produce further erosion for Labor and Likud on top of the Knesset seat losses in 1996 have given new urgency to the campaign.

The Knesset gave preliminary approval to the bill to rescind direct election of the prime minister on the same day it voted to hold early elections. But to become law the bill still needs a 61-vote majority on each of two more votes. And even if it passes, the chances of its implementation before May are uncertain.

Netanyahu, the first prime minister elected directly, opposes the measure. Labor Party head Ehud Barak also is opposed, mainly because he does not want to seem unwilling to face down the incumbent in direct elections, according to Israeli political analysts.

But in a sign of the urgency felt by many leaders in the two major parties, two former prime ministers — Shimon Peres of Labor and Yitzhak Shamir of Likud — jointly called on the Knesset this week to work expeditiously to complete the process of restoring the one-ballot system.

Two years ago, Israeli voters for the first time cast two separate ballots in national elections, one for premier and one for a political party's list of candidates for the Knesset.

Until 1996, Israelis would vote only for a Knesset list. The leader of the major party, Labor or Likud, that won the most seats would become prime minister.

In recent years, Israelis had debated various proposals for election reform, many of them aimed at making elected officials more accountable to their constituencies.

On the local level, such a reform was introduced in 1975, with separate elections for mayor and a party's list for city council. When this model was instituted at the national level, it was apparently with some hope that directly electing the prime minister would make him or her more accountable to the voters, while also strengthening his or her position in the cabinet.

But those best intentions were not realized. "Direct elections devastated the big parties," Carmon said.

Given the opportunity to split their vote, Israelis voted for either the head of Labor or Likud for prime minister, and then flocked to smaller parties for the Knesset. Labor's representation in the Knesset dropped from 44 seats to 34 after the 1996 vote. Likud fell from 32 seats to 23, though part of its loss resulted from merging its list with two other parties, Gesher and Tsomet.

For the first time in Israeli history, the country's two major parties held fewer than 50 percent of the seats in the 120-member parliament, and the premier's own party occupied less than half of the cabinet, which is made up of eight parties.

As a result, the imminent collapse of the Israeli government has been a persistent theme overshadowing Netanyahu's tenure. Until the Knesset voted Dec. 21 to call early elections, Netanyahu had faced countless threats of defection by one or more of his coalition partners — and the resignations of three cabinet ministers — over a variety of issues, not just the peace process.

The election reform campaign has attracted leading Likud and Labor figures who believe that the electoral system, not the premier, is the problem and that Israel's political paralysis is likely to worsen if the system is not changed.

Former Likud Defense Minister Moshe Arens, for example, chairs the Council on Parliamentary Democracy, the body created earlier this year by the Israel Democracy Institute to lobby for repeal of the direct election law.

The institute projects that under the current system, the Labor and Likud representation in the Knesset will decline further in the next election: 28 seats for Labor and 19 for Likud.

The fervently religious Shas Party, which now holds 10 Knesset seats, will increase to 13, and other smaller parties will make gains as well, the institute predicts.

"The collapse of the large-party system, on which democracy is anchored, now appears inevitable," the Israeli daily Ha'aretz said in an editorial after last month's local elections.