Inquiry & Analysis No. 45 - Israel December 27, 2000
Israeli Elections and the Israel's Election System
By Ronen Sebag and Meyrav Wurmser*

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's resignation on December 10, 2000, forced an election for prime minister (PM) within 60 days. Several questions arose as a result, throwing Israel into political turmoil and complicating the debate regarding Israel's new electoral system. This system, which combines elements of the presidential and parliamentary systems, is viewed as one of the key factors responsible for political instability in Israel.

Why Did Barak Resign?

Barak's resignation, which went into effect on December 12, forced special elections for PM to take place within 60 days. According to Israel's "Basic Law: The Government" elections for PM will take place on the last Tuesday before the end of the 60-day period initiated by the resignation (February 6, 2000).

According to the Israeli media, Barak's aim was to block former PM Benjamin Netanyahu from running for the post, since Israel's "Basic Law: The Government" states that only Members of Knesset (MKs) may run for PM. When the special prime ministerial election is held, Barak will compete against Likud leader Ariel Sharon, who was (but no longer is) considered significantly less likely to beat Barak than Netanyahu.[1] According to opinion polls conducted last week, Netanyahu had a two-digit lead over Barak.[2]

Because Barak's resignation was aimed at preventing Netanyahu from participating in the prime ministerial race, there was an intensified effort in the last two weeks to change the Basic Law. The proposed change - known as the "Netanyahu Amendment" - permits private citizens (namely Netanyahu) who are not MKs to run for the post of PM. Because this is an amendment to a Basic Law - a part of the "super" laws which serve as Israel's informal "constitution" - a majority of 61 MKs in three vote readings were needed for its approval. Barak's resignation was based on the belief that Netanyahu would have difficulties finding such broad support in the Knesset for the amendment. Nevertheless, on December 19, the Netanyahu Amendment was passed in the Knesset in three rapid readings that all took place on the same day.[3]

The Netanyahu Amendment could potentially throw the Israeli political system into a parliamentary crisis. This is because it creates the possibility that an individual who is not an MK can run for PM. This situation defies the very foundation of Israel's parliamentary system and is likely to be challenged in Israel's Supreme Court.

General Elections

Barak's resignation means that elections will be held for the post of PM only, without a general parliamentary election. However, despite the fact that the Knesset was not dissolved at the time of Barak's resignation, the possibility of dissolving the Parliament was raised a week prior to Barak's resignation, when the Knesset begun the process of dissolving itself. This motion still needed two additional readings. Another possibility to prompt general elections was to pass a no confidence motion.[4]

In the past two weeks politicians from almost every faction debated the issue of dissolving the Knesset. Those from the left argued that the fragmentation in the Knesset has instituted political extortion and perpetuated a situation of political stagnation. Right-leaning parties, and especially the Likud, had an additional incentive to favor dissolving the Knesset: opinion polls forecasted a substantial gain for the Likud party and to the right wing block in general elections. According to these forecasts, the Likud was likely to gain 15 seats in the Knesset, and the Right wing block as a whole was forecasted to stand at 63-64 Knesset seats.[5] Thus, it is not surprising that Netanyahu conditioned his candidacy for PM on general elections.

In spite of the ostensible broad support for Knesset dissolution, on December 19 the Knesset voted against general elections by 69 to 49.[6] The Sephardi religious Shas party, which according to polls was likely to lose 6 of its 17 Knesset seats, voted against this motion and prevented it from passing. Besides concerns about losing their Knesset seats, the Shas party was also concerned because the polls indicated that the secularist Shinui party would have been the likely beneficiary of Shas' loss. However, the Shas voter base is to the right and would have voted against Barak. Therefore, Shas had a strong incentive to vote for the dissolution of Knesset, allowing Netanyahu to lead the Likud list. But the polls indicated that any candidate from the right would beat Barak. Therefore, Shas could both avoid being held responsible for a Barak victory and not risk losing its Knesset seats in general elections.[7]

Consequently, Netanyahu announced that he would not run for PM leaving Ariel Sharon as the sole Likud leader. On December 20, former PM Shimon Peres decided to run for prime minister and challenged Barak as the Center-Left candidate for the premiership. This could have split the vote on the Left, thereby paving the way for a Sharon victory. Since primaries did not take place in the New Israel Party and Barak was its sole candidate, Peres needed the support of 10 other MKs to submit his candidacy. He expected the Meretz Party to nominate him as its candidate, but on December 21st Meretz declined. This left Barak as the only candidate of the Center-Left camp.[8]

Same Bad System, New Complications

Many commentators discussed the new system of elections in Israel and its contribution to the current state of affairs. Israel's old system of elections, which existed until 1996, was strictly parliamentary. Israelis gave one vote for a party, but had no voice in selecting the party's candidate. In the current system, Israelis cast their votes twice: once for the prime minister (direct election) and once for a party that will represent them in the Knesset. The new system has been harshly criticized across the political spectrum and most commentators and analysts favor changing it.

Opponents of the current system say that Barak's resignation proved for a second time that an Israeli prime minister cannot function properly with a divided Knesset and without a broad base of support by the Prime Minister's own party. The decision to institute the new system was in order to prevent small factions from having unmerited power in determining who would be prime minister and whether he could function. Now it is clear that not only did the direct elections not correct the problem, but it also exacerbated the deterioration of governance in Israel. As an editorial in Ha'aretz recently stated, "the [current] system resulted in the fall of large, ideologically inclusive parties that fulfilled an important role in forming public political thought and in administering parliamentary democracy in Israel."[9]

An Ha'aretz editorial noted that in 1981 there were 95 MKs (79% of the Knesset) from the two large parties, during the 1990s their numbers dropped to 66 and now they stand at a mere 42 (35% of the Knesset). Furthermore, this editorial pointes to the fact that "only two years after Benjamin Netanyahu was forced into early elections at the end of his third year as prime minister, Barak is also facing an end to his ability to maneuver around Knesset factions. Based on the current system, the prime minister's party also becomes a source of instability."[10] Opponents of the current system also argue that it has undermined the benefits of parliamentary democracy, "which is based on large parties reflecting the wishes of a broad, multifaceted constituency."[11] In a Ha'aretz op-ed published on October 30, 2000, former MK and Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein added that the new system produced governments in which "the reigning prime minister never managed to win a parliamentary majority...the advantage of the old system was that governments usually enjoyed the support of the parliament for most of their days in power."[12]

The political turmoil of the past two weeks brought the race back to square one. Barak against Sharon. The debate over the system of elections faded away. A new complication was added to the existing system in the form of the Netanyahu Amendment even though Netanyahu is not running. Yet, from a strictly legal viewpoint, the old law that restricted candidacy to the post of PM only to MKs corresponded with the parliamentary system. Now the door is open for PM candidates that are not members of the Knesset, further diluting the parliamentary character of the Israeli elections system.

Ronen Sebag is a Research Associate at MEMRI. Meyrav Wurmser is MEMRI's Senior Fellow, and directs MEMRI's Israel Program.

[1] Yediot Aharonot, December 11, 2000.

[2] In the latest opinion poll, conducted by the Dahaf Institute and Dr. Mina Tzemach, and published in Yediot Aharonot a day after Barak'a resignation, Netanyahu was leading Barak 52% to 30%. In the same poll, Sharon was leading only 40% to 34%. Source: Yediot Aharonot, December 15, 2000.

[3] Ha'aretz, December 19, 2000.

[4]Ha'aretz, December 11, 2000.

[5] Yediot Aharonot, December 15, 2000.

[6] Ha'aretz, December 20, 2000.

[7] Yediot Ahronot, December 22, 2000.

[8] Ha'aretz, December 21, 2000.

[9] Ha'aretz, November 30 2000.

[10]. Ha'aretz, November 30, 2000.

[11]Ha'aretz, November 30, 2000.

[12] Amnon Rubinstein. "A Different System of Election." Ha'aretz, November 30, 2000.

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