Flawed Electoral System
The need for an Israeli prime minister to be skilled at coalition building has only deepened with the degeneration of Israel’s electoral system increasingly into a free-for-all of multiple parties — with 12 electoral blocs and as many as 17 distinct parties in the current Knesset. Israel has an extreme form of proportional representation, with a threshold of votes for getting into parliament that is too low, at about two percent, for a stable majority to govern.
No single party or list has ever won a majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset, but the major parties have declined to a historical low. Labor and Meretz have fallen from 44 and 12 members elected respectively with Rabin in 1992, to 19 and five seats today — paying the political price for the failure of the peace process of the 1990s.
As for Kadima, it’s still reeling from last year’s dismal war with Hezbollah; Olmert is consistently shown in the polls as leading Kadima to defeat. But elections are not due until 2010 and sitting Members of Knesset who know they are vulnerable have little incentive to vote no-confidence in the government, precipitating an early election. (And Olmert’s stock has risen lately due to the popularity of the mysterious military move against a target in Syria the other week.)
Contrary to what is generally believed, a possible silver lining of Olmert’s weakness is that this might embolden him to seriously negotiate a two-state framework agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to be consecrated at an upcoming international conference scheduled for November. Such a dramatic development, if it is seen as bolstering prospects for peace, would boost Olmert electorally. (But, given a host of factors, its success must be regarded as a longshot.)
Barak is apparently basing his comeback strategy on a hardline stand. He is said to have discounted the possibility of any West Bank withdrawal in the near term. He has reportedly proclaimed the need for three to five years for Israel to develop a technological defense against such rocket and missile attacks from the West Bank as Israel has experienced from the other territories it evacuated — Gaza and southern Lebanon. Barak may undermine Olmert’s efforts to bolster Abbas with the dismantling of West Bank checkpoints or the further release of prisoners.
Barak could have delivered much yet failed miserably as prime minister. Today’s resurrected version has been hardened by that experience.