Calls have grown louder in recent months for Israel to abandon the practice of directly electing a prime minister. Moves are underway in the Knesset to abolish the law under which this takes place but, if successful, will only affect the election after this one.

Under the current system, electors vote separately for a prime ministerial candidate and a political party of their choice. As a result, more tend to vote for smaller, specific-interest parties. This has led to the decline of the two major parties, Likud and Labour, and the emergence of a miscellany of smaller lists.

Lacking a strong enough Likud representation after the 1996 election, Binyamin Netanyahu--Israel's first directly-elected prime minister--was forced to cobble together a coalition comprising eight parties. In return for its support, each party attempted to milk the Treasury for its own pet causes, while expecting cabinet seats in proportion to its size.

The Likud eventually held fewer than 50 per cent of the seats in Netanyahu's cabinet, a situation which became increasingly untenable, and eventually contributed to the calling of early elections. At the end of last year, former prime ministers Shimon Peres (Labour) and Yitzhak Shamir (Likud) joined in an unlikely alliance to call for abolishing the direct election of the prime minister before the May 17 election.

They warned that the situation which tied Netanyahu's hands would become even worse after the election--at a time when whoever is in power will face major decisions affecting the future of Israel.

"There is a real danger that the state will lose its power to make decisions," warned Peres. "There will be no one representing the state or the national interests, but only the sectarian interests of the various splinter parties. Whoever is elected prime minister, the coalition will chain his arms and legs, and instead of a central idea or central responsibility, there will be a collection of pressure groups."

"The power of the major parties is decreasing, while the power and number of the smaller ones is rising," Shamir added. "The public and national interest requires large parties dedicated to the general interest, rather than the sectarian ones."

A bill to abolish the direct election law, presented by lawmakers Yossi Beilin (Labour) and Uzi Landau (Likud), is moving through the Knesset--but will only apply to the Knesset after next.

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