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No end to the parties as Israeli election nears


JERUSALEM -- What Israel needs to become heaven on Earth is a few dozen "coherence generators," contends Ami Rokeah, a former Air Force pilot and current candidate for the Knesset.

These are not electrical devices. They are people, like Mr. Rokeah, who practice transcendental meditation, and the installation of meditating ministers in the government is the chief platform of Mr. Rokeah's "Natural Law Party."

His is one of dozens of small and seemingly hopeless parties that registered in advance of last night's deadline to file candidacies for the June 23 national elections in Israel.

Those parties include "On Wheels," representing taxi drivers; "Da," representing Russian immigrants; and others for battered women, pensioners, mortgage-holders, and two rivals for the mantle of a murdered racist, Rabbi Meir Kahane.

The electorate watched in amusement as the parade of these parties began before dawn Monday, the hopefuls lined up outside the Knesset. There were the usual hassles: The women's rights party refused to sign the registration because the form referred to the candidate as "he"; the Russian immigrants' party argued with the clerks over the registration fee.

But while most of the parties that pay the $10,000 fee will fail at the polls (and lose their money), the proliferation of small political parties here is a serious handicap to creation of a strong government.

The current Knesset, or national parliament, is made up of 17 separate parties, and almost as many are expected to emerge on the next Knesset roll.

The Knesset forms the government and elects the prime minister, but no one party has ever won an outright majority of the 120 seats. So every government has been formed through a coalition of parties.

Israel twice has formed coalitions of its two largest parties, Labor and Likud, but those "national unity governments" have been political marriages filled with spats. More often, one of the major parties has formed a coalition with the smaller, splinter parties to make a government.

Because Labor and Likud are often so evenly balanced, the smaller parties have had considerable leverage in the negotiations over a coalition. They have often exacted a heavy price for their partnership.

"Because of the stalemate between the two major parties, the payoffs have become much higher," said Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor and author of several books on Israeli politics. "Now they can blackmail more."

The small, orthodox religious parties, for example, have been able to impose religious strictures on a mostly secular society in return for their partnership with ruling parties.

Both of the major parties have decried the power this arrangement gives to small parties, but they have been loath to offend the parties by making drastic reforms.

They took a tiny step in that direction by raising for the current election the "threshold" of votes a party must receive to enter the Knesset. A party now must get 1 1/2 percent of the total vote, up from 1 percent.

The Knesset has approved a change to direct popular election of prime minister in 1996 in hopes of giving the leader more political power. But the government still would be formed by the Knesset.

For the upcoming election, the challenging Labor Party is leading in public opinion polls. But the next government will depend on the parties that are likely to form partnerships with Labor.

Pollster Hanoch Smith anticipates that both the left-wing Labor "camp" and the right-wing Likud camp could win 60 of the 120 seats. If that occurs, intensive bargaining opens to woo one of the tiny parties to switch sides.

It is the magic moment for people like Mr. Rokeah. If he wins as much as one seat in the Knesset, he might be in just the right spot to demand creation of an Israel Department of Transcendental Meditation.

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