This Week in History: Israel’s last direct election

On February 6, 2001, Ariel Sharon won Israel's third and final direct prime ministerial election.

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon poster 390 (R) (photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon poster 390 (R)
(photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
The State of Israel has enjoyed a fairly stable regime in its nearly 64-year history, despite having no constitution to anchor its system of government. However, Israeli governments have for the most part lacked the stability to last a full four-year term. In an attempt to rectify the conditions that led to the fall of one government after another, in 1992, the Knesset altered The Basic Law: The Government, to allow for the direct election of a prime minister. This was a break from the previous pure parliamentary system in which the largest party's leader became prime minister and formed a ruling coalition. On February 6, 2001, the third and final such election took place.
No political party in the history of the state has ever enjoyed a mandate large enough to form a government without requiring the support of smaller parties to give it the 51 percent of seats necessary to form a government. While the coalition system is often praised for its inclusion of diverse political views, it has also led to a system under which governments last an average of only two-and-a-half years. It was this instability that led the Knesset to embark on the state’s only true system-altering experiment.
The election reform was passed in 1992 as a result of a grassroots campaign by academics and members of Knesset seeking to empower the larger parties, thereby strengthen the ruling coalition and the stability of the government. It was hoped the phenomenon of coalition-forming parties’ pandering to smaller parties would be mitigated under the new system.
Because it was legislated only months after the formation of the Yitzhak Rabin government in 1992, the new system was first tested in elections called by then-prime minister Shimon Peres months after Rabin’s assassination. In June 1996, Binyamin Netanyahu became the first directly elected prime minister.
The effect hoped for by the authors of the reform, however, was mitigated by factors they either did not anticipate or believed would not be as powerful as they proved to be. The result was that because voters were able to choose a prime minister independently from the party of their choice, the imperative to vote for a larger party with a greater chance to form a stable coalition was lessened. Instead, voters cast their ballots for parties that more accurately represented their political views, increasing the power of smaller parties at the expense of the day's larger parties, Labor and Likud.
In the three elections that took place under the system of direct election of a premier, no government served out its full term. The following government, led by former prime minister Ehud Olmert also came to an early end not because of traditional coalition problems but because of pressure on the premier over corruption allegations that eventually led to a multi-charge indictment. The successor government, led by Netanyahu, has proved to be one of the more stable coalitions in Israel’s history.
Analysis of the full impact of the reforms and their subsequent cancellation is difficult given the extraordinary circumstances - criminal charges and medical complications (Ariel Sharon's stroke) - faced by the governments that served and expired since the cancellation of the election reform in 2001. Nonetheless,  calls for additional reform to the election and parliamentary system continue.
Despite the relative stability of governments since the cancellation of the direct election of prime minister, the necessity of pandering to smaller parties in order to form and maintain a coalition remains. The result is that today, as throughout the state’s history, ruling parties must make coalition agreements upon their formation that bind their governments to policies that may be either contradictory to their own or at the very least compromise their agenda to a certain extent.
While some see the current system as positive in that it moderates more hardline positions and is inclusive of views that might otherwise not be represented, others describe it as precluding effective governance by requiring a premier to sometimes place coalition considerations above the policy objectives he or she was elected to enact.
Nevertheless, only time will tell if further reforms will be legislated to once again alter the system of elections and government that has been in place for all but three of Israel’s 18 elections in its 63 years.