The Rise of the 15th Knesset
Although Barak won a sweeping victory and could claim to have received a mandate from the people for his administration, the fragmented Knesset that was elected concurrently was anything but comfortable for a prime minister. Barak's Labor Party, the anchor of the coalition with the largest single representation in the Knesset, had only 26 seats, leaving a vast gap to be overcome in reaching the minimum 61-member support for a government.
The coalition Barak fashioned included a total of 73 Knesset members, a seemingly comfortable Knesset majority. But to attain this number, Barak cobbled together left-leaning parties such as Labor and Meretz alongside right-leaning elements such as Shas and the National Religious Party. The task of keeping that fault-line from shaking fell on the shoulders of the prime minister.
This last point is one important example of how differences between the Israeli electoral system and the American one can affect the daily routine of the chief executives in these countries. An American president may need to endure frequent frictions with Congressional leaders, but his or her Cabinet is composed of professionals hired for the job, rather then elected officials. In contrast, the Israeli prime minister is generally assured of Knesset support for government policies because the coalition represents a majority of Knesset members, but this comes at the cost of heading a government composed of the leading Knesset members themselves, out of each coalition party.
This means that government meetings are gatherings of men and women who are each charged with representing and defending the interests of different constituencies. At the same time, they must keep an eye on their own personal ambitions of climbing the political ladder--a prescription for almost constant squabbling.
An Israeli Prime Minister must be adept at calming the rows that inevitably arise. Failure to do so puts the future of his or her government at risk.
The Barak Years
Trying hard to attain a major breakthrough with the Palestinians, Barak--along with U.S. President Bill Clinton--pushed for the convening of an intense Israeli-Palestinian negotiating summit at Camp David in Maryland in July 2000. The negotiating positions prepared for the summit by Barak's staff were so controversial that three parties in Barak's coalition--Shas, Yisrael Ba'aliya, and the National Religious Party--quit just prior to the summit. Barak was left with less than a working majority in his coalition on the eve of the summit, but persisted in following his original plans.
At the summit, Barak offered the Palestinians an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian negotiators rejected the offer as inadequate, while many Israelis considered it overly generous. Barak returned home with neither a major public achievement nor a stable coalition. By the end of the summer, he was barely winning no-confidence motions, relying for his political survival on the support of Arab parties in the Knesset who were not formal coalition members.
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