For those who are confused, here is a simplified summary of how Israel’s Prime Minister is chosen:
Israelis vote for a party, not for a person. The parties — through internal mechanisms such as primary elections — choose a list of candidates, starting with the party leader and working down. After a general election, the Knesset is formed by giving each party a number of seats (there are 120 in total) in proportion to the votes they receive. So if a party gets, say, 10 seats, the first 10 candidates on their list get to be members of the Knesset.
Then the fun begins. If a party were to get a majority, its leader would become PM. But of course this never happens, so it’s necessary to form a coalition. The President first asks the leader of the party with the most seats to try to form a coalition, and she has 28 days to do this; if she fails, then the President asks someone else.
Coalition-making is the quintessential smoke-filled room process, involving every kind of horse-trading. Once a coalition is in place, the PM forms a cabinet (also called a ‘government’) which includes members of the coalition parties chosen in the smoke-filled room.
Ehud Olmert succeeded Ariel Sharon as PM when Sharon had his stroke, and then his Kadima party won the election in 2006. The present coalition includes Kadima, Labor, Shas — a party representing ultra-orthodox Sephardi voters — and the tiny “pensioners” party (don’t ask). The ideology of Shas is complicated, but many Israelis feel that it is primarily oriented toward government benefits for its constituency.
Tzipi Livni has apparently won the Kadima primary — I say ‘apparently’ because her margin was so narrow (431 votes) that her major opponent, Shaul Mofaz, made noises about asking for a recount — and if Olmert goes through with his promise to quit (or is indicted), and if she can find coalition partners — probably she will reach a modus vivendi with the extortionists of Shas and with Labor — she will be the next Prime Minister of Israel, at least until the scheduled elections of 2010.
Actually, given the threats facing Israel today from Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran and Syria, I would prefer to see a kind of unity government that would include the Likud instead of Shas. But at least so far there seems to be no chance that the Likud will join a coalition with Kadima.
There are reports that Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu is negotiating with Labor’s Ehud Barak to bypass Livni. This would be interesting, since Labor is theoretically further left than Kadima. Both Barak and Netanyahu are former Prime Ministers who did very poor jobs and who are ethically challenged. Personally, I would prefer to see Livni get the chance. Either Barak or Netanyahu could probably be competent defense ministers, if held on a tight leash by a tough PM (and we don’t know if Livni could be such a PM).
Do you see a lot of democracy in action here? I don’t.
Meanwhile, here in the US, news reports of her primary victory invariably included “…and she is expected to continue negotiations with the Palestinians”. If only she would surprise us!