Letter: Israeli poll system helps extremists

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From Dr Andrew Shacknove

Sir: In the past week, striving to come to terms with the terrible assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, we search for explanations. Many pieces of the puzzle have been identified: a fanatical young extremist, security lapses, the public availability of weapons, the accessibility of Israel's leaders, divergent visions of Israel itself and its relations with the Palestinians, and the acts and omissions of Likud in providing a forum for radical voices.

Another factor may be the unusual features of Israel's electoral system. Israel has an extreme form of proportional representation (PR) wherein small parties proliferate, needing to reach only a very low threshold of votes in order to enter the Knesset (parliament). This, in turn, creates a chronic problem for the major parties, Likud and Labour alike, in their efforts to form coalition governments. Small parties enjoy disproportionate power. Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, is reaching out to right- wing extremists not because he shares their views, but because he will sooner or later need their votes.

PR has much to recommend it. It is arguably more democratic than other systems. But each country needs to balance the dual objectives of democracy and order. At one extreme, single party systems err in favour of order at too high a price to democracy. The Israeli system may be making the opposite mistake. Perhaps it finally is time for Israel to raise the threshold of votes small parties need to enter the Knesset. Doing so will not eliminate the extremists. But it may serve to limit their political importance by incorporating them into larger and more moderate parties.

Yours faithfully,

Andrew Shacknove

Oxford

9 November

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