Why This Israeli Election Matters More Than Most

Because of profound changes in Israel's electoral and governmental system, whoever wins tomorrow's prime ministerial election - the Labor Party's Shimon Peres or Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu - will be the country's most powerful elected leader ever.

First direct election

For the first time, the prime minister will be directly elected by the voters instead of being elected by the ruling party.

"The prime minister used to be first among equals," said Alon Liel, director of the National Planning Authority in the prime minister's office. "Now he is ... above the rest."

This change separates the candidate from his party and makes the election - and the Mideast peace process - more contingent on each man's own views.

But because Israel's new system is an unusual hybrid of the American-style presidential and British-style parliamentary systems, the prime minister's rule is still subject to his establishing, and maintaining, a majority of 61 votes in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament. He will have 45 days to form a coalition. Failure to do so would trigger new elections.

Consolidation of powers

Also key to the prime minister's new power is the reduction of government departments from 23 to 18. Already several key functions of the defunct Economy and Planning Ministry have been combined with two planning units in the prime minister's office to form the new high-powered National Planning Authority, which directs all security and economic planning.

This move will give the prime minister more influence in directing the Middle East peace process and in implementing his vision of the future.

The prime minister's current powers, are "a joke compared to what they will be after the election," says Mr. Liel.

Russians, Israeli Arabs crucial

Labor and Likud are expected to be extremely close in separate parliamentary polls, with each winning about 40 seats. So, the new prime minister will have to turn to the smaller independent parties to break the tie, making them the power brokers of this election. The constituents who make up the two largest independent parties are: Russian immigrants and the religious Jews who originated in the Arab world.

If Mr. Peres wins, he can count on the predicted eight seats of Meretz, the left-wing party, bringing his total to 50. But he will also need to strike a deal, that would include many concessions on unemployment assistance and housing, with Natan Sharansky's predominantly Russian immigrant party, Israel Be'aliya, which is expected to win five seats.

With the five or six seats that the Israeli Arabs are predicted to win, Peres could muster a 61-vote majority. But this would invite Likud criticism that he does not have an entirely Jewish majority.

To command a majority among Jewish voters, Peres would need to reach a deal with the right-wing Labor breakaway, The Third Way, which is expected to win two seats, and Shas, the party of religious Sephardic Jews, which may win five seats. With these two, Peres would have a Jewish majority of 62 seats - giving him the ability to move forward boldly on peace issues.

Still, Peres's hold on power could be tenuous, because some parties might agree to work with him but not formally join the Labor coalition. This scenario would limit his influence on peace issues, because he would have to make concessions for the independent parties' support every time a critical issue came up for vote.

If Mr. Netanyahu wins, he can count on 13 seats from three smaller, conservative parties, giving him him 53. Agreement with Mr. Sharansky's party and Shas would secure a 63-vote majority.

Either way, it's going to be a tight finish and Sharansky will be a key player.

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