Page last updated at 14:08 GMT, Friday, 6 February 2009

Unstable politics plague Israel

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Jerusalem

Image from Haisraelim advert
The party compares Israel's successive governments to dirty underpants

The pink-shirted man in the advert holds two pairs of white underpants, one in each hand, and talks about his friend.

"Every day he changes his dirty underwear... This is the way also he votes in elections - when there is a dirty government, he replaces it with a clean one.

"And when the second government is more dirty than the first, we swap them back."

With this sales pitch, Haisraelim, a new, single issue party has entered the political fray ahead of Israel's 10 February elections, pushing for a change in the electoral system.

The activists behind it, gathered around a wooden table in an upmarket apartment north of Tel Aviv, say they are tired of bickering, scandal-prone politicians and governments too unstable to take decisive action.

While rockets from Gaza and potential nuclear bombs from Iran are looming large in the minds of Israeli voters, the party's leader, political science Professor Gideon Doron, says the voting system itself is a "threat to Israel's existence".

"We can't make peace and we can barely make war," he says, as he fields phone calls about election billboards.

The country has a diverse electorate - combining immigrants from all over the world, hawks and doves, religious and secular viewpoints as well as traditional right and left wings - and an unusual political system.

Gideon Doron, Political Science Professor and leader of Haisraelim
[Israel] cannot make decisions and we cannot plan for the future on major, major things
Gideon Doron
Haisraelim leader

Under Israel's very pure form of proportional representation, voters choose a party, rather than a candidate.

Seats in the 120-member parliament, or Knesset, are allocated in line with the percentage of the vote each party wins.

The parties decide, usually through internal ballots, who will be on their lists for the Knesset, meaning voters do not directly choose many of the people that represent them.

A whole host of small and medium-sized parties representing Israel's diverse mix of interest groups - currently allowed a seat if they get just 2% of the vote - mean no single party has ever held a majority in the Knesset.

Instead, fractious coalitions are typically formed through wheeling and dealing, with smaller parties effectively holding larger ones hostage.

For example, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert found himself trying to negotiate a final status agreement with the Palestinians while reliant on the religious party and powerful kingmaker Shas.

Shas is opposed to even discussing the division of Jerusalem, a key issue in any peace deal.

All too often, the coalition breaks up and fresh polls are called, which analysts say forces politicians fearful for their political survival to adopt short-term agendas.

"We cannot make decisions and we cannot plan for the future on major, major things," says Professor Doron.

'The same people'

Turn-out at the polls is dropping, as voters are becoming increasingly frustrated.

Shay Bar, 30, a former shop owner currently planning a career break in Australia, struggles to remember the last time he voted.

Lily Steier, 71
It's not democracy, it's very primitive
Lily Steier

"We have elections every one or two years," he says, "but it's the same people all over again."

"Whoever wins will fall victim to the whims of smaller parties," says Abe, a retired pharmaceuticals specialist who gives only his first name.

He is scathing about politicians he says are "totally unqualified, you vote for the leader, but the average voter has no control over who is on the list".

And Lily Steier, 71, a retired school counsellor, says there are too many small parties because the major parties do not pay enough attention to minority interests.

"Now we have the greens, and the pensioners, and now even the disabled - it's not democracy, it's very primitive."

Haisraelim - "the Israelis" - wants 60 MKs to be directly elected by regional constituencies, as in the British first-past-the-post system, and the rest chosen using the current method.

It argues that the system would be more stable as the power of smaller parties would be reduced, plus direct accountability to voters of regionally elected MKs would raise the quality of politicians in office.

'Change blocked'

The system is the same as a bill proposed by four MKs from the three biggest parties in the outgoing Knesset - one from Mr Olmert's Kadima party, two from Labour and one from the Likud party of Benjamin Netanyahu, slated as the next prime minister.

The Kadima MK, Menachem Ben Sasson, the head of the Knesset Chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, says he is convinced at least 90 MKs would have supported the bill.

But the move fell victim to the very system it was trying to change. Shas opposed it, fearing its own influence would be reduced.

Under its coalition agreement with Kadima, the religious party was able to veto changes to the "basic law" that outlines the system of government.

Haisraelim activists meet in home in Herzeliya
Haisraelim brings together activists from both left and right

Mr Ben Sasson sees Haisraelim's exploits as a waste of votes that could otherwise go to "serious parties".

But he believes electoral change is still on the agenda, despite more pressing concerns: "If we didn't have war, and the economic crisis, it would be the major issue," he says.

The Labour Party backs a switch to a partly constituency-based system.

And Kadima's new leader, Tzipi Livni, wants to raise the number of votes needed to bring down a government from 61 to 80 - ahead of consultations on further changes.

Likud too says it backs some kind of reform, although it gives no details.

But it it highly debatable whether Haisraelim will get beyond what party activist Paz Dror, 34, a well known Israeli internet entrepreneur, says is their primary aim - to stimulate debate.

"A journey must have a beginning, and this is the beginning."

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