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Israeli system: a source of pluralism and instability

JERUSALEM – Israel’s voting system reflects the many different political currents in society, but it has also been behind the repeated failure of governments to form stable coalitions.

The country’s proportional representation system means that any party can enter the 120-member parliament, or Knesset, if it passes a threshold of two percent of the popular vote.

The number of seats that party secures is proportional to the number of votes received.

In Tuesday’s election, the 18th since the Jewish state’s creation in 1948, more than five million citizens can vote at 9,263 polling stations across the country.

Thirty-three parties will battle for seats in the next Knesset, reflecting the country’s eclectic political map. Polls predict that only around half of these are expected to enter parliament, however.

After the official results, President Shimon Peres has seven days in which to entrust forming the next government to the party leader who says he or she is ready to do so.

The party leader then has 28 days to put together a coalition. If necessary, Peres can extend the deadline by another 14 days.

If a coalition fails to emerge, he can assign another party leader with the task, and this person also has 28 days to form a government.

If this bid fails, Peres can then assign the task to a third person, but should this person not succeed within 14 days, the president then calls a new election.

Whoever gets first shot at forming a coalition of at least 61 MPs is generally the leader of the party that wins the most votes, although this is not mandatory.

No single party in Israel has ever been able to secure the necessary 61 majority to enable it to rule alone.

Twice – in 1996 and 1999 – Israelis voted directly for a prime minister as well as for a party list. In 2001, a special prime ministerial election was held after Labour premier Ehud Barak was unable to win the Knesset’s support.

Creating a coalition can be painstaking, as the leading party must accommodate different parties demanding portfolios in the new cabinet, each with its own agenda.

This is the main source of instability in most Israeli governments, with only six of the past 17 parliaments able to complete their four-year mandate.

Over the past 13 years alone, elections have been called six times after parties withdrew their support from the government.

The success of the political haggling that begins immediately after the election will determine how strong and viable Israel’s next government becomes.

Peace stances of Israel’s main parties
The next Israeli government is expected to face increased pressure from new US President Barack Obama to push forward with stalled Middle East peace talks.

Here are the positions of Israel’s four main parties on talks with the Palestinians, according to their Hebrew-language manifestos.

LIKUD (right-wing)

  • "The Palestinians are not ready for an ideological compromise of historical dimensions to end the conflict."
  • Israel will focus its efforts on assisting Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad to improve the West Bank economy.
  • The economic plan "will not end the conflict in itself, but will create a positive atmosphere that will significantly improve the chances of a peace process."
  • No return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. "Israel will not assume any moral responsibility over the refugees."
  • Jerusalem will remain Israel’s undivided capital.
  • No mention of a Palestinian state.

KADIMA (centre)

  • Supports creation of a Palestinian state in most of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip: "Israel’s interest as a Jewish state obliges the acceptance of the principle that the end of the conflict will be based on two nation states."
  • Advocates continuing the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks revived under US stewardship in November 2007, which have reportedly made little progress since.
  • The future Palestinian state will be demilitarised.
  • Judaism’s holy sites in occupied east Jerusalem will remain under Israeli control. Jerusalem is Israel’s "undivided capital."
  • Large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank will remain under Israeli rule.
  • No Palestinian refugees will be allowed to return to Israel.

YISRAEL BEITENU (ultra-nationalist)

  • Israel will negotiate with the Palestinian Authority only on the future of the West Bank. It will seal its borders with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and completely cut itself off from the territory.
  • Supports a "maximal separation" of Jewish and Arab populations based on a regional solution to the conflict which will involve Egypt and Jordan.
  • Wants to keep major Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank in return for giving Palestinians control of the so-called "triangle" in Israel’s Lower Galilee region that is adjacent to the West Bank and has a high concentration of Israeli Arabs.
  • Mentions Palestinian "autonomy" but not a state.
  • Jerusalem is Israel’s "undivided and eternal capital."

LABOUR (centre-left)

  • Supports "a rapid conclusion of the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority" leading to creation of a Palestinian state in most of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
  • The exact borders of the future Palestinian state are subject to talks.
  • Large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank will remain under Israeli rule. Other settlements will be evacuated.
  • "Jerusalem, including all its Jewish neighbourhoods, is Israel’s eternal capital and will remain so"; the Holy City’s sacred sites will have "special status" and Judaism’s holy sites will remain under Israeli control.
  • Rejects the right of return of Palestinian refugees. The issue to be resolved as part of a regional peace plan Labour wishes to see implemented within two years.

[AFP / Expatica]