Deluge of Israeli Politics Could Swamp Efforts to Resuscitate the Peace Process

A rough week for Israel's premier shows flaws in a young democracy that may hinder talks with Arabs

It was less than 24 hours before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to face a no-confidence motion Tuesday. The vote looked more likely to topple his government than ever before.

That's when Mr. Netanyahu cut a deal with former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharanksy, now the leader of a new Israeli immigrant party that primarily represents Russian Jews in Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

In exchange for his party's vote, Mr. Sharansky won more than $65 million in funds for immigrant absorption projects, and was given other powers Netanyahu promised him a year ago but never delivered.

How did a special interest save Netanyahu? It is a chapter in the story of what makes his coalition such a tenuous patchwork of interests, and of what drives Israeli politics. It is also a window on the factionalization and parochial power disputes that complicate progress in the American-sponsored peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

With some Knesset members angry over his positions on the Middle East peace process - some deeming him too conciliatory, others deeming him not conciliatory enough - the prime minister had still others fuming over the latest scandal to rock his government: the resignation of his well-respected finance minister, Dan Meridor.

One way off the hot seat was to ensure that he would not lose the support of his two centrist parties, whose views of Arab-Israeli negotiations are neither firmly dovish nor hawkish and whose leaders have suggested they won't tolerate much more in the way of shenanigans from the year-old government. That led to his concession to Sharansky.

Why small parties wield big power

One of the greatest differences between Israeli and American politics is that the Jewish state has no tradition of lobbying per se. Rather than forming PACs and PIGs (political-action committees and public-interest groups) that try to influence elected officials, Israelis form parties and let the "lobbying" be done through them. As a result, single-issue parties wield disproportionate influence and can put marginal problems in the way of solving larger ones.

In some cases, as in Netanyahu's latest dealings, a prime minister can use the small parties to win concessions for his agenda by parceling out funds or powers that most of the electorate would never agree to.

On the positive side, a no-lobby system essentially eliminates the need for professional intermediaries who bring big-money stakes to American politics - and provide more opportunities for influence-peddling. If an Israeli is looking to get rich, running for office is not likely to be the top choice of ways to do it.

Israelis defend their system as one which, when its founders were forming a state just 50 years ago, aimed to give maximum representation for what they knew would be a highly heterogeneous populace.

Two big catchall parties, they argued, would never let all the minority voices have their say. Theirs was already a nation made up of various ethnic communities facing debates between theocracy versus secularism, socialism versus capitalism, and Eastern versus Western culture, not to mention the political divisions that would later develop over whether to return land captured from their Arab neighbors in exchange for peace.

But since then, Israel has tried to smooth out a motley system that seemed to encourage too much political horse-trading. In 1991, the Knesset amended its elections law by raising the percentage of the electorate any given party would have to garner to win a parliament seat from 1 percent to 1.5 percent. A year later, it passed a law allowing for the direct election of the prime minister. Netanyahu was the first beneficiary.

Government critics now say that the combination of reforms did not solve the problems. The Knesset currently has 14 parties vying for power, although some claim as little as two out of the 120 members. Eight of those are in Netanyahu's coalition, with any one of them threatening to leave it at any given time.

Those who reject an American-style presidency also argue that in a parliamentary system, parties are driven by agreed-upon ideas rather than charismatic figures who are sometimes offer more personality than policy. But in Israel, there is so much room for splintering that several parties are in fact built around individual power brokers whose agendas are not really very different from those of other leaders.

Foreign Minister David Levy and his Gesher (Bridge) Party is a case in point. The Netanyahu rival is so opposed to the imminent appointment of former general Ariel Sharon to a Cabinet post that he is threatening to leave the coalition.

"New political groupings will emerge because of this crisis," says Avraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political science professor who also says Israelis may go back to the drawing board. "We know that the new governmental system is a dubious one," says Dr. Diskin, "and that checks and balances are not observed."

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