- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2000

In a surprise television appearance on Dec. 9, Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced, "Tomorrow I will officially advise the president of my resignation [and] in 60 days … go to special elections for prime minister."

The primary reason for Mr. Barak's announcement is his decline in popularity. The most recent polls show him some 20 percent below Benjamin Netanyahu, and that Mr. Barak's Labor Party (Israel One) stands to lose nine seats in Knesset, while Likud will gain 11. Furthermore, Mr. Barak has been challenged by his own Cabinet, a coalition of left-center and dove members, led by Ministers Yossi Beilin, Haim Ramon and Avraham Burg, who seek to unseat him.

The reason for Mr. Barak's resignation, as explained by the Israeli and foreign media, is that Mr. Barak is concerned about Mr. Netanyahu's chances for winning the special election for the prime minister. They fail to convey the consequences of the convoluted 1996 Israeli electoral law that created two separate elections, one for prime minister and one for the Knesset. It is true that by resigning from office, Mr. Barak becomes the only candidate for the special election for prime minister. Also, Mr. Netanyahu, who is not a member of Knesset, will not be able to contest for the prime minister's election, which is restricted to members of Knesset. However, the media have not read the electoral law carefully enough. The fact is that it is up to the Knesset, and not the prime minister or the government, to dissolve itself or to call for new elections. It is up to the political parties in the Knesset, where there is a majority of anti-Barak members, to decide on whether Mr. Netanyahu can run or not. If Likud were able to create a Knesset coalition for its dissolution, then Mr. Netanyahu would become a Likud Knesset member and would certainly run against Mr. Barak.

There is a silver lining for Mr. Barak in the presence of his rival, Likud leader Ariel Sharon. Mr. Sharon, like Mr. Barak, would not want Mr. Netanyahu to run. Sharon is only 3 percent ahead of Mr. Netanyahu in the polls. Also, he is 72 years old, and the Lebanon fiasco of 1982 continues to discredit him. The Agranat Commission, established after the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla of 1982, found then Defense Minister Sharon to be one of the culprits. The verdict was that Mr. Sharon could no longer run for the office of defense minister. The Labor Party has already started a campaign against Mr. Sharon, arguing that, if he is not fit to be defense minister, how can he be fit to be prime minister? The Likud Party, which considered Mr. Barak's resignation "a dirty trick," would prefer Mr. Netanyahu, who is the more promising candidate, to run against Mr. Barak. The Labor Party is divided between the Barak faction and the left-center peace faction, and Likud is divided between Netanyahu and Sharon partisans.

It must be reiterated again and again that the media, especially the foreign media, are unable to discern the difference between the two types of elections called for under Israel's law. Mr. Barak's resignation does not mean new Knesset elections. It only means another contest for the office of prime minister. There is an uncanny coalition between the most extreme left and right politicians of Labor and Likud seeking to eliminate the special election for prime minister. Yossi Beilin of the left, and Moshe Arens on the right have been adamant advocates of the return to the former electoral law of close to 50 years standing, whereby the prime minister would be selected by party list as in the British parliamentary system. The winning coalition selects the prime minister, historically the leader of the largest party in the Knesset.

I agree that the electoral law of 1996, which called for a separate, direct election of the prime minister, was terribly flawed. The new law created a confused, mixed system. The idea behind the new electoral law was that it would eliminate the multiparty system. In fact, in both the cases of Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak, the opposite took place. The reformers, composed of professors of law, political scientists and some politicians, adopted only one aspect of the American political system, i.e. the executive branch. The U.S. president selects his own Cabinet with the advice and consent of the Senate. Unfortunately, the case in Israel is that the political parties of the Knesset select the prime minister's Cabinet. Unlike the American president, the Israeli prime minister is dependent upon independent members of his party, who are free (as we have seen in the cases of Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak) to challenge the prime minister daily. The Israeli prime minister is subject to the stormy politics of the Knesset. Unlike the U.S. president, the Israeli prime minister cannot fire members of his own Cabinet.

The reason behind the mess in Israeli politics is the decline of the party system, cohesion and discipline. There is no collective responsibility (all for one, and one for all) concept in today's Israeli government. The Knesset is a Babylonian jungle where minor, major, significant and insignificant parties meddle in legislative decisions. In the past, it was unheard of that the Knesset coalition parties would challenge the government. Today, there is an amazing coalition of Knesset members some 64 of them mainly from the right that can topple any government. The prime minister lost control of Israeli politics in the absence of party discipline.

Unfortunately, Mr. Barak is a political amateur and, as with Mr. Netanyahu, failed to master the political skill that had been so prominent in the past disciplining and garnering cooperation from the Cabinet and the parliament. The only remedy is to return to the workable and sensible former electoral system.

Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.

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