WITH the first United States-style primary elections behind them, Israel's plethora of political parties move into top gear today for the most complex and keenly fought balloting in the country's 48-year history.
Israeli elections seldom produce clear winners. But the May 29 elections may be in a league of their own. Untested electoral reforms, several new parties, turmoil over the future of Middle East peace, and the possibility of terrorist attacks make predicting the outcome of the elections a difficult venture for even the most seasoned observers.
A group of undecided voters, estimated at about 25 percent of the electorate, is expected to determine the outcome. Terrorist attacks between now and election day could count heavily against Prime Minister Shimon Peres, whose Labor Party is the current favorite.
Party primaries, held for the first time last week, turned out to work more in favor of party machines than new contenders. On May 29, for the first time, Israelis will vote separately for a prime minister and for the party of their choice. In all, 120 legislators will be elected to the Knesset (parliament) on the basis of proportional representation.
The new electoral system, rushed through in the last stages of the right-wing Likud government in 1992, combines elements of the US presidential system with the British parliamentary system, a mix some analysts say could result in gridlock.
"We've taken everything out there in the world of democracy and put it in a blender, and this is what we are left with," says Hebrew University political scientist Reuven Hazan.
In the likely event that neither of the main parties wins a majority, the elected prime minister will have 45 days to form a government by assembling a majority coalition through horse-trading with the smaller parties. If there is a split ballot in which Israeli voters elect a Labor prime minister and a hostile Likud Knesset, Mr. Hazan argues, perpetual government paralysis could be the result.
A worst-case scenario
If the prime minister-elect fails to present a government to the Knesset within 45 days, there will be special elections only for prime minister but not the Knesset. He can go through this process twice. If he fails the second time, he cannot run again.
"If there is a majority in the Knesset hostile to the prime minister, then we have MAD, mutually assured destruction," Hazan says. "In the new system, the worst-case scenario is opposing majorities in the two branches of government in a country divided on the most crucial issues with a high level of floating voters.
"Then we are likely to reach a crisis of democracy and not just a crisis of government," Hazan says, as has happened in the past.
Of course, it might not come to this. Other analysts argue that the direct election of the prime minister will give the successful candidate a degree of political clout that he would not have had under the previous system.
"Whoever wins the election of prime minister will have a fairly good chance of forming a government because of the fear of losing a second election, the fact that he will have a public mandate, and the reality that small parties will be eager to win concessions," says Hebrew University political scientist Gadi Wolsfeld.
Peter Medding, another political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says the new system has increased the powers of the small parties. This could give minority parties like the Israeli Arabs and religious parties like Shas a disproportionate say in the outcome.
Called by a buoyant Mr. Peres in February, five months ahead of the scheduled deadline, the elections could be decisive in determining the course of Israel's peace with the Palestinians, which has yet to confront the toughest points of difference between them.
The elections are also likely to determine the timing and nature of peace with Syria, seen as the key to Israel forging a wider peace with the Arab world - beyond accords that already exist with Jordan and Egypt and more cautious links with Oman, Qatar, Morocco, and Tunisia.
The main challenger to Peres, right-wing Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, is opposed to many aspects of the peace accord with the Palestinians. He says he has no intention of shaking hands with the elected Palestinian leader. Mr. Netanyahu opposes a peace accord with Syria that involves handing back the coveted Golan Heights that Israel occupied during the Six-Day War in 1967. The return of the Golan Heights under monitored conditions is the pivot of four-year talks between the two countries.
Following a spate of suicide bombings by Islamic extremists in Israel last month, Netanyahu appeared to have wiped out much of Peres's lead in polls, which stemmed largely from a wave of support for peace that followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin Nov. 4.
Peres leads in polls
But last week, two polls for Israeli newspapers gave Peres a comfortable lead over Netanyahu and showed his numbers holding firm or improving over the previous week.
A Gallup poll put Peres ahead of Netanyahu 48 to 40 percent, compared with 49 to 43 the previous week. A poll conducted for the daily Yediot Ahranot put Peres ahead 51 to 45 percent, compared with 49 to 47 the previous week. There was a 4 percent margin of error.
In the present Knesset the Labor Party has 44 seats to Likud's 32. The Labor coalition, which relies heavily on the left-wing Meretz Party (12 seats) and some smaller groups, commands 58 seats.
The Likud coalition, with the support of some right-wing and religious parties, commands 52 seats.
The Labor coalition often has to rely on the support of five seats held by Arab parties to gain a majority vote on peace issues. At other times Labor has relied on five of the six legislators from Shas, the ultrareligious party representing Jews who came to Israel from the Arab world.