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MacPolitics Doesn't Work in Israel

March 11, 2001|GERSHOM GORENBERG | Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount" (The Free Press, 2000)

JERUSALEM — Call it the rejection of MacPolitics. Call it belated recognition by a small country that despite globalization, one-size answers made in America do not fit all.

On Wednesday, overshadowed by Ariel Sharon taking office as prime minister, Israel's Knesset, or parliament, voted to rescind a constitutional reform under which Israel's leader was chosen directly by the voters. Enacted in 1992, the reform reflected the influence of all things American on Israeli society: No longer would the parties in parliament pick the chief executive. Israel would have personality-based elections, in which the winner would receive a popular mandate.

The timing of repeal was full of ironies. The national crisis that brought Sharon to power was outwardly the result of the peace process collapsing, but in fact, the electoral system played a crucial role in creating that crisis. And because of the electoral system, Sharon, head of the right-wing Likud, has had to form an unstable coalition with the left-of-center Labor Party, and with a fundamentalist party that has been steadily defeating the Likud's own constituency.

Israel's original electoral system grew out of its own needs and political traditions. When the Jewish state gained independence in 1948, its population was deeply divided into ideological communities--socialist, right-wing nationalist, religious--each with its own political parties. Faced with external threats and in need of internal cohesion, the new nation couldn't afford to exclude even small groups from sharing the power.

So each party got seats in the Knesset in proportion to the number of votes it won in national elections. The leader of the largest party became prime minister but had to form a coalition with as many other parties as possible, aiming to rule by consensus. But by the 1980s, dissatisfaction was apparent. TV and American-style campaigning focused on individual candidates. Two successive elections produced virtual ties between the two largest parties--Labor and Likud. Small parties jacked up their price for supporting one of the big parties, and the day-to-day deal-making that is essential to a democracy looked ever grimier.

Enter the reformers, with their proposal that Israelis cast one ballot for a party in the Knesset, and a second directly for a candidate for prime minister. As in America, a tie would be impossible; the winner would be clear. (The spectacle of a tie vote in the U.S. was years in the future.) Small parties would no longer wield strong influence. The reform passed in 1992, and went into effect in the 1996 election.

Its impact was disastrous. No longer was it necessary to vote for a large party to influence who became prime minister. By the 1999 elections, Labor and Likud shrank to half their former size in the Knesset, their seats now occupied by parties with narrow agendas. The biggest beneficiary was Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party with a theocratic platform that draws its votes from the working-class neighborhoods that were once Likud turf.

For a prime minister to govern, the ability to make deals was more essential than ever. Yet the new system attracted anti-politicians, men with larger-than-life personalities unsullied by years in parliament and party central committees.

First Benjamin Netanyahu, whose experience was in producing propaganda sound bites for U.S. television news, then Ehud Barak, a military man devoid of civilian experience, found themselves incapable of maintaining a coherent policy while dealing with a fragmented parliament.

Barak set an unrealistic deadline for reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, then became all the more desperate for quick results when his support in the Knesset collapsed. Difficult issues refused to yield to haste, and negotiations unraveled.

Now it's Sharon's turn to wrestle with a riven parliament. But Israel has had enough: As of the next election, it will return to a made-in-Israel system.

There's a lesson in this story: American political systems don't always translate well. And people elsewhere in the world should be wary of the temptation to become a look-alike franchise in a glitzy global chain. Home-made solutions are more likely to fit home-made needs.

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