Israel: Why Barak Won

In Israel’s new electoral system, which brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power in 1996 and then brought him down in May 1999, each voter casts two ballots. One is for the prime minister, and the other is for one of the parties to be represented in the 120-seat Knesset. This system is an electoral mongrel. It is a cross between the American presidential system and the European parliamentary system.

The way the Israelis used their two votes in the 1999 election led to two contradictory results, embodied in the two winners of the election. Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu by an amazing 12-percent gap (56 percent to 44 percent). The other winner is an ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party called Shas, composed largely of poorer Israelis deriving from North Africa and other parts of the Middle East. Shas, which seeks, in a country that is largely secular, “a revival of glorious religious Sephardic tradition,” gained seven seats, from ten in 1996 to seventeen in 1999. This makes Shas the third-largest party in the new parliament, just after Netanyahu’s Likud Party, which now has nineteen seats (down from thirty-two), and Barak’s Labor Party, which now has twenty-six seats (down from thirty-four).

Barak’s personal victory was based on the forces pulling the electorate toward Israel’s political center; Shas’s victory was based on the forces pulling it away. What makes the election results so confusing is the difficulty of reconciling these two conflicting forces in Israeli politics. On the face of it, this contradiction is built into the electoral system itself. It gives the voters one ballot to choose a prime minister who may “unite” the country. It gives them another ballot to vote for a party that represents their sectarian doctrines and distinctive group interests.

There were always a large number of parties in the Knesset because of the system of proportional representation and the low threshold for getting in (1.5 percent of the total vote). In the old system, where each voter cast only one ballot, there were ten parties in the parliament in 1992. Now, in 1999, the number of parties has gone up to fifteen; they include three religious parties, Shas among them, with a total of twenty-seven seats, three Arab parties with ten seats, and two parties of Russian immigrants also having ten seats.

Yet the conflicting victories of Barak and the Shas Party are not to be explained only by the technicalities of the odd Israeli electoral system. In the 1996 elections, which were conducted under the same two-ballot system, Benjamin Netanyahu defeated Shimon Peres by a margin of less than one percent, a result that clearly showed the virtual tie that had existed between the left and the right since 1977. Thus Barak’s landslide calls for some other explanation, and so does the spectacular rise of Shas among voters who are by no means all ultra-Orthodox. In my view both victories derive largely from one source—Netanyahu’s politics of resentment and …

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