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An Election, but Who Won?

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
February 23, 2009
Weekly Standard

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No doubt President Obama had planned to call the winner of Israel's Tuesday elections to offer congratulations and suggest a visit to Washington. But Israel's bizarre and dysfunctional electoral system has produced no winner, only a mess likely to produce a weak government and perhaps new elections in two years or less.

As in the United States in 2000, there was no clear winner on election night. The Knesset has 120 members, so 61 are needed to govern. Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party increased its strength in parliament from 12 seats to 27, but this was one fewer than Tzipi Livni's Kadima party--and a disappointment because polls had led everyone to expect he would surpass her easily. Yet despite this good result for Livni, there was no victory for the left or center-left, for the Labor party fell to a historic low of 13 seats, and Meretz, further to the left, won only 3.

But our presidential system ultimately produced a single winner with full presidential powers in 2000. Winner really does take all in the United States. In Israel's parliamentary system, power will be divided in a fractious Knesset and in a coalition cabinet where whoever is prime minister will not have a majority for his or her own party--just a collection of ministers linked more by a desire for power than by ideological or political consensus.

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