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Israel elections Monday, 10 May, 1999, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
Small parties pack powerful punch
Pnina Rosenbaum
Pnina Rosenblum posing for her new political party
By BBC News Online's Jane Black

Blonde, glamorous and outspoken, Pnina Rosenblum, the former model turned cosmetic mogul, is a no longer just a sex symbol but a viable political party.

Israel Elections Special Report
Once dubbed "the breasts of the nation", Ms Rosenblum is taking her case to the nation in the run-up to the May 17 elections - and making headlines.

Her policies are based on her own political beliefs - equality for women and the Palestinian right to claim an independent state.

The latest political polls show her party may win two seats in the Israel's 120-seat parliament.

But Ms Rosenblum is not just another rags-to-riches story. Like dozens of others, she is a symbol of both the success and the failures of the Israeli political system.

One for one and all for none

Israel's electoral system is as close as one gets to pure democracy. Any party receiving 1.5% of the vote (an estimated 55,000 votes) can take a seat in Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

Up to 20 parties could enter the Knesset after this election, compared to just 13 in 1996.

The relative ease of being elected has produced a myriad of parties ranging from the serious to the off-the-wall.

There are Russian and Moroccan immigrant parties, including the powerful Yisrael Ba'Aliya led by Natan Sharansky which is currently being courted by both the mainstream Labour and Likud. There are parties based on personality like Ms Rosenblum's and Shinui, led by the eccentric talk-radio host Tommy Lapid.

There are also single-issue parties. Israel boasts a pro-gambling Casino Party, a pro-cannabis Green Leaf, a grey party for the elderly and a pro-meditation Natural Law party.

The array and power of small parties is not new. But the power of smaller parties has grown immeasurably since the 1996 elections when, for the first time, voters were able split their vote for prime minister and one for the Knesset.

"In the vote for prime minister, voters tend to vote for what they believe is the greater national interest. But the separate Knesset vote allows them to indulge their religious, personal and racial affiliations," said Neil Lochery, a professor of Middle East Studies at University College London. "That has exacerbated fragmentation."

Ends and means

The justification for the Israel's system of proportional representation is that the state is still undergoing far-reaching and rapid changes in the population make-up as a result of immigration. That is certainly true. More than 100,000 Russian Jews have come Israel in the early 1990s alone.

But, according to Dr Arye Carmon, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, the resulting fragmentation is too high a price to pay.

"Among Israeli democracy's most prominent characteristics are the Jewish people's lack of a tradition of political sovereignty, a deep conflict over the nature of Israel's ethnic identity - its Jewishness; a similar conflict over democratic norms; and the most burdened political agenda in the western world," he wrote in an editorial supporting electoral reform.

"All these accentuate the need for a solid and stable foundation for effective governance."

"Matters will only get worse; splintered coalitions will be even shorter-lived than Netanyahu's, " he said.

So is reform on the horizon? Dr Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University says the answer is an unqualified no.

"The two main parties Labour and Likud need small parties because as the number of small parties increase, they have less of a majority and depend on them even more. The small parties don't want to increase the threshold because they have no guarantee they'll rise above it," he said.

"The fragmentation is in some ways a reflection of the fragmentation of Israeli society. It's only going to get worse."

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