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Briefing Paper : Rules of the Political Game


How to Play:

Think of the Israeli election as the first round of a playoff. The very weakest teams are driven out, and the rest enter the next and more important innings of play: in this case, intense dealing to forge a majority in Parliament.

It is not that it is technically impossible for any one party to win a ruling majority; it's just that such a thing has never happened in any election held since Israel's founding.

The party that gets the most seats will

be tapped by the country's ceremonial president to bargain with the rest in order to form a ruling partnership. In practice, the main function of the vote is to produce a first seed. Then, to take power, the party must gain support for a Cabinet of its choosing from 61 members of the 120-seat Parliament, known as the Knesset.

Even big losers can be winners. A party that takes just one seat (the minimum) and is thus rejected by more than 98% of the electorate, may, if its seat is needed, harvest major pork-barrel dividends and a Cabinet ministry.

Fifteen established parties and 10 new ones are running. Among the 10 are a women's party, one that represents "mortgage victims," a party for practitioners of transcendental meditation and another for taxi drivers.

Previous Scores:

The last two elections have produced uneasy partnerships between the rightist Likud Party and the center-left Labor Party. The result--the so-called national unity governments--created a rule-by-paralysis in which major issues confronting Israel were dealt with marginally, if at all.

Only when a major party is able to break out and form a government with ideological soul mates does clear policy take shape.

For instance two years into the last national unity government, when an effort by Labor to form a narrow coalition failed, Likud formed a right-wing-religious coalition with a 66-seat majority. In the next two years of Likud-dominated rule, the number of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip shot upward, something impossible when Labor was around to put a brake on the program. Currently, Likud itself holds 38 Knesset seats, having lost a few in a party breakup, and Labor holds 38.

The Early Line:

No one expects either Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud standard bearer, or Yitzhak Rabin, from Labor, to win a majority in the June 23 vote. That's where a Byzantine thistle of tactical maneuvering comes in.

The key phrase is blocking majority. Rabin hopes to forge a bloc of 61 seats from his own party, a left-wing grouping and Arab parties. Why not just make this a ruling majority? Because Rabin is reluctant to put Arabs in his Cabinet. Such a move would be considered explosive in a state that is officially designated as Jewish.

However, his government can withstand votes of confidence with Arab backing, and he could be expected to use the threat of Arab support to lure religious and Russian immigrant parties into his coalition.

He might invite Likud in.

Shamir's hope, even if Rabin should win a plurality, is to gather a blocking majority of right-wing, religious parties and three Likud renegades who have formed a party of their own. All would band together and refuse to support a Labor government. If Rabin's efforts to cobble together a coalition break down, Shamir would be given a chance to re-establish a rightist rule.

If Likud comes out on top, Shamir may decide to reconstruct the rightist coalition or he could bring Labor into a national unity government with himself as prime minister.

Shamir and Rabin could even agree to rotate as prime minister.

Got it?

The Bench Warmers:

Here is a rundown of Israel's lesser-known parties, who, as likely as not, will tip the scales to decide whether Shamir will extend his term in office or whether Rabin will return to power after a 15-year intermission.

The right wing: The three parties in this group, holding seven Knesset seats, define themselves by varying degrees of hard-line policies toward the Palestinians: from annexing the West Bank and Gaza Strip to outright removal of Palestinians from the land under Israeli control.

The rightists have failed to unite in a single list of candidates, a shortcoming that might reduce their clout. Still, they hope to increase their share at the expense of Likud.

One party, headed by former general, is reportedly picking up votes by running on a clean government platform.

If the far right grows, the parties will use their clout to sink the Middle East peace talks. All three oppose negotiations on the grounds that self-rule for Palestinians will lead to an independent state.

The religious right: The religious

community, holding 18 seats, is atraditional king-maker. But it is in turmoil. Two of the parties running have identified closely with Likud's claim to hold onto the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Such a stand reduces their maneuverability in case of a Labor victory.

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