Push to Adopt a Constitution Grows in Israel

Collapse of government builds momentum for changes to curb power of small parties

FOR Uriel Reichman, being right is small satisfaction. For the past four years, the Tel Aviv University law professor has warned Israel's political leaders that unless they change the country's system of government Israel will continue to be stymied by indecision.

The bewildering spectacle played out in the Israeli Knesset last Thursday, as its 23rd government in 42 years collapsed over the issue of Middle East peacemaking, appears to have made his point - again.

``Without changing the system there is no chance that a prime minister can reach a decision that will change our history,'' says the dean of Israel's largest law school. ``He will simply be toppled by all this loose political power floating around.''

Professor Reichman says the main problem in Israel is the proliferation of small parties - 13 in the current parliament - that has fragmented the decisionmaking process. As a result, no single party has been able to steer Israel on a clear and definitive course. Israel has grown incapable of defining, then acting to advance, its own long-term national interests, Reichman says.

``In short, Israel celebrates the rule of the minority rather than the rule of the majority,'' he says.

Last week's events will likely boost the efforts of a growing number of Israelis to persuade the Knesset to adopt a constitution. A draft proposed by Reichman and other legal scholars would mandate the direct election of prime minister and create single-member districts for half the Knesset, substituting for Israel's ponderous system of proportional representation.

The idea, says Reichman, is to make Israeli politicians more accountable to the public than to the splinter parties.

The concept has the backing of 75 percent of Israelis, according to public opinion polls. But draft legislation mandating direct elections and barring from the Knesset parties with less than 2.5 percent of the popular vote has languished in parliament.

``The Israeli political system is totally inappropriate for the country,'' Reichman says. ``What is happening today in Israel is that we are moving in circles. The system can't reach a decision in the face of great crisis.''

In the end, Reichman concedes, even his proposed reforms will be insufficient if public opinion on such issues as Middle East peacemaking remains deeply divided.

``A coalition government can operate when you have national consensus,'' he says. ``When national consensus breaks down, that system is incapable of decisionmaking, planning, or implementation.''

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