The general consensus in Israel is that the current system of proportional representation and large, unwieldy governing coalitions is not working. The proposed reforms are designed to promote stability, strengthen the executive and legislative branches and reinforce the separation of powers, but without abandoning the European-style parliamentary system.
The inherent instability of the Israeli body politic is underlined by the fact that the country has had no less than 31 governments in 59 years of statehood. The past eight years have seen six defense ministers, seven foreign ministers and eight finance ministers. The new system would make it more difficult to topple a sitting government in midterm.
Well-intentioned efforts to refine the system in the past have come to naught because political will was lacking. This time, though, the prognosis for change looks good: There is a Knesset majority for many of the proposed reforms and, more importantly, Olmert knows his government will likely fall if he fails to push through the promised package.
The urgency for change gathered steam last week when Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party, gave Olmert an ultimatum: Change the system or Yisrael Beiteinu will bolt the coalition, triggering a process that almost certainly will lead to a government collapse and early elections.
In a meeting at the prime minister's office last week, Lieberman argued that the Olmert administration had failed to make any lasting imprint on Israeli life, but if it strengthened the ailing system of government that would be an achievement of historic significance.
Lieberman for years has been advocating the introduction of a full-fledged presidential system along American lines. That was one of the main options considered by a special commission of experts established by former President Moshe Katzav in 2005 to analyze the failings of the Israeli system and recommend reforms.
In the end, however, a commission wary of radical change opted for a measured amendment of the current system rather than the adoption of something different and untried in Israel. The Knesset's Law, Constitution and Justice Committee, which has also been debating reform for years, concurred.
Both committees were influenced by the resounding failure of Israel's last electoral experiment: the direct election of the prime minister, which contrary to expectations led to a strengthening of the smaller parties.
The new reform package contains the following elements:
- After an election, the leader of the largest party automatically becomes prime minister. This will encourage voting for larger parties with realistic candidates for prime minister such as Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud, Ehud Barak's Labor or Olmert's Kadima. Secondly, since the prime minister would have been elected, wheeler-dealer smaller parties could not play one candidate against another in coalition negotiations.
- "Constructive no confidence." To unseat an incumbent prime minister, at least 66 Knesset members would have to vote against him or her and agree on a successor. This would make it harder to topple a government in midterm, since the chances of opposition members from left and right coalescing around the same alternative candidate are not high. It also would make it more difficult for coalition partners to hold a prime minister to ransom by threatening to bring him or her down. As things stand, 61 Knesset members can unseat a prime minister without having to unite around a successor.
- Raising the threshold for election to the Knesset from 2 percent to 3 percent. This would eliminate very small parties or force them to merge with like-minded larger groupings.
This amendment also would have tended to strengthen the larger parties, as well as make the constituency-elected Knesset members directly accountable to their constituents.
The problem is that the proposal, which has been around since the mid-1950s, is it still does not have a Knesset majority. The smaller parties, fearing they stand to lose the most, are adamantly against any such change.
Ironically the change is being spurred by the very coalition pressures it seeks to eliminate. Olmert's coalition has 77 supporters in the Knesset, but if Lieberman pulls out his 11 Yisrael Beiteinu legislators, the ultra-Orthodox Shas is likely to withdraw its 11 as well -- a move that almost certainly would spark new elections.
As for Lieberman, he needs to show voters why he has remained in a coalition that is talking peace with the Palestinians on the basis of the 1967 borders.
High-profile amendments of the system that make for stronger government would provide a convincing answer.
Ever since Lieberman joined the relatively dovish coalition, he has been losing support. The question he and Olmert will have to ask themselves, though, is whether the changes they are advocating will strengthen them in an election or play into the hands of key rivals such as Netanyahu, who might sweep to power on the coattails of a system favoring larger parties like Likud and provide the new incumbent with a stronger power base from which to govern as he sees fit.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem report