How Minorities Prosper In Israel

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The Independent Online
ISRAEL WILL elect a prime minister and 120 members of the Knesset tomorrow. The significance of the withdrawal of three candidates for the premiership over the weekend is that the winner must get 50 per cent of the votes cast, plus one extra vote.

So long as there were five candidates in the race this would have been very difficult for either Benjamin Netanyahu or Ehud Barak to do. This would have forced a run-off on 1 June. A run off appeared to suit Mr Netanyahu as he calculated that Israel's Arab minority, who overwhelmingly support Mr Barak, would not bother to vote in the second round.

Israel adopted a system whereby the prime minister and the Knesset members were elected separately in time for the last election in 1996. The idea was that it would reduce political fragmentation.

In fact the change has had exactly the opposite effect. Israel has powerful sub-cultures such as the Russian community and the ultra-orthodox. The new system of voting allows the electorate to express their national feelings in the prime minister's election and their ethnic and religious loyalties in the elections to parliament.

The result is that the two main parties - Likud on the right and Labour on the left - have both suffered. Yisrael Ba'aliyah, the largest Russian party, and Shas, the party of the ultra-orthodox Sephardi, have grown in strength. Minor parties should do even better in this election. Shinui, an anti-ultra-orthodox party, may get four seats.

Patrick Cockburn