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The Presidentialization of PoliticsA Comparative Study of Modern Democracies$

Thomas Poguntke and Paul Webb

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780199252015

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2005

DOI: 10.1093/0199252017.001.0001

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The Failure of Presidential Parliamentarism: The Failure of Presidential Parliamentarism: Constitutional versus Structural Constitutional versus Structural Presidentialization in Israel's Presidentialization in Israel's Parliamentary Democracy

The Failure of Presidential Parliamentarism: The Failure of Presidential Parliamentarism: Constitutional versus Structural Constitutional versus Structural Presidentialization in Israel's Presidentialization in Israel's Parliamentary Democracy

(p.289) 13 The Failure of Presidential Parliamentarism: Constitutional versus Structural Presidentialization in Israel's Parliamentary Democracy
The Presidentialization of Politics

Reuven Y. Hazan (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In no parliamentary democracy has the presidentialization of politics achieved such magnitude as in Israel. In 1992, the Israeli parliament adopted a law that altered not only the electoral system but also Israel’s political framework. According to this law, Israel became the first parliamentary democracy in which the Prime Minister was directly and popularly elected. This development produced a unique political system in which a ‘presidentialized’ Prime Minister was grafted onto an essentially parliamentary democracy. This chapter addresses the following questions: First, did the political reform in the 1990s reflect a de facto change that had already taken place? In other words, is it appropriate to speak of a phenomenon of presidentialization occurring within Israel’s parliamentary democracy prior to the 1990s? Second, what were the causes and consequences of presidentialization? How did this unique system affect the political parties, electoral competition, political representation, legislative behaviour, legislative-executive relations, and other associated factors? Third, how does Israel’s experience of the presidentialization of politics compare with other modern democracies? Were the political and electoral attributes of leadership powers amplified by factors flowing from the formal change? Finally, how does Israel’s rather extreme experience of the presidentialization of parliamentary democracy contribute to the assessment of this phenomenon?

Keywords:   direct election, electoral reform, Israel, Knesset, political reform, prime minister

In no parliamentary democracy has the presidentialization of politics achieved such magnitude as in Israel, where in the 1990s it took the form of constitutional change. Yet the consequences of this phenomenon were so negative that the change was abolished less than five years after it was first implemented.

In 1992, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, adopted a law that altered not only the electoral system, but also Israel's constitutional framework.1 According to this law, Israel would become the first parliamentary democracy in which the prime minister was directly and popularly elected. However, after taking office, the prime minister could be removed by a no‐confidence vote supported by a bare majority of the Knesset (61 of the 120 members). This development produced a unique constitutional system in which a ‘presidentialized’ prime minister was grafted onto an essentially parliamentary democracy. In the light of these developments, this chapter addresses the following questions:

  • •First, did the constitutional reform in the 1990s reflect a de facto change that had already taken place? In other words, is it appropriate to speak of a phenomenon of presidentialization occurring within Israel's parliamentary democracy prior to the 1990s? Did the constitutional reform simply make the implicit explicit, or was it a radical departure from the brand of parliamentarism which had hitherto obtained?

  • •Second, what were the causes and consequences of constitutional presidentialization? What structural factors acted as constraints on the constitutionally presidentialized prime minister? How did these outcomes affect the political parties, electoral competition, political (p.290) representation, legislative behaviour, legislative‐executive relations, and other associated factors?

  • •Third, how does Israel's experience of the presidentialization of politics compare with other modern democracies? Were the political and electoral attributes of leadership powers amplified by factors flowing from the formal constitutional change?

  • •Fourth, how does Israel's rather extreme experience of the presidentialization of parliamentary democracy contribute to the assessment of this phenomenon?


Structural and contingent sources of change across the three faces

From the late 1940s, when Israel achieved independence, until the early 1990s, the political system in Israel was purely parliamentary, inspired by the British model. The Knesset was elected according to the most proportional system in existence.2 The electoral system in Israel consisted of one national constituency, with fixed party lists and a legal threshold set at only 1 per cent of the valid vote. The Hare quota was used for seat allocation until 1973, and after that the Hagenbach‐Bischoff quota (with results identical to d'Hondt). The outcome was a multiparty system, with no less than ten parties represented in the Knesset, and usually at least a dozen. No party ever won a majority, leaving the government in the hands of coalitions that often included five or more parties and were based on a political culture of power‐sharing (Hazan 1999b).

During this period, the office of the prime minister was strengthened over time, at the expense of the parliament, the parties, and the ministers. This happened for two main reasons: first, structural‐institutional provisions; second, the contingent personalities of the prime ministers. Institutional provisions changed over the years from the objectives first outlined in the Government Yearbook of 1949. The formal institutional definition of the prime minister's office at that time was minimalist—coordination and organization of the government. Since then, the scope of the prime minister's office has increased significantly. For example, ministerial committees, which have the delegated authority to make policy decisions in place of the government, were formed in the prime minister's office. These committees expanded over time, starting with four established by Israel's first prime minister, and currently numbering approximately fifty. These committees deal with issues relating to the jurisdiction of several ministries, and together they oversee all areas of government involvement. The institutionalization of the ministerial (p.291) committee system enhances the power of the prime minister for several reasons: (i) appointments to ministerial committees are decided in a closed circle, where the prime minister is most influential; (ii) the prime minister can participate in, and even chair, any committee meeting; (iii) the work of ministerial committees is secret; and (iv) the committee system allows the prime minister to deal with only the committee members, rather than with the full government.

By the early 1960s, the Government Yearbook had already redefined the prime minister's office to reflect a more activist role, entrusted now with agenda‐setting and policy‐initiation. At times, the prime minister's office concentrated mainly on formulating guidelines and initiatives for the ministries to carry out, and at other times, it was directly involved in their implementation as well. By the late 1970s, the prime minister's office evolved into an increasingly centralized organ, with the formation of sub‐cabinets on many salient issues that were headed by ministers without portfolio under the prime minister and entrusted with policy‐making, evaluation, and implementation of special programmes. Occasionally, a team or staff within the prime minister's office was formed in order to constrain, or even counter, the activities of particular ministries.3

The prime minister's institutional powers have also been strengthened statutorily. The initial version of the ‘Basic Law: The Government,’ enacted in 1968, established the authority of the prime minister over all aspects of government activity, including its rules of procedure—decisions on which the ministers could only appeal. The revised 1992 version of this law subjected all the rules and procedures of the government to the prime minister's discretionary authority. For example, the prime minister determines the agenda of government meetings. Ministers can propose that items be included on the agenda, but cannot force a discussion.

In 1981, a new law was passed that allowed the prime minister to dismiss a minister—a power that until then he was not legally able to wield. By the early 1990s, the increased executive functions of the prime minister's office, and the diminishing role of the individual ministers, were manifested by the creation of the ‘prime minister's staff ’, which fostered a phase of clear personalization. For example, this staff helped the prime minister and his director‐general carry out government policy according to the prime minister's priorities. It also at times coordinated with, and took control of the ministries, and intervened heavily in policy‐making, to the extent that several ministers complained of the infringement of their authority and responsibility. The 1992 reform even revoked the collective responsibility of the government, and made the individual ministers directly responsible to the prime minister alone.

The cumulative effect of these institutional provisions was a continuous transformation of the position of prime minister and a formalization of his (p.292) dominant position. As Arian and his colleagues (2002: 48, 147) argue: ‘While by design the prime minister…has been primus inter pares, in practice all Israeli prime ministers have been primus…The twin trends of executive governance in Israel since the establishment of the state are expansion and consolidation.’ Yet the sources of de facto changes in the working mode of the Israeli parliamentary system were not just structural. While the structural factors pushed Israel towards a presidentialized working mode, they were amplified by contingent changes.

The clear leadership role played by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben‐Gurion, is an example for the impact of the contingent factors which include personal attributes. Being one of the nation's ‘founding fathers’, he dominated the Mapai Party, which led all Israeli governments until the late 1970s and was the predominant party in the party system (Hazan 1998). Ministerial appointments—at least in those important offices that the main party controlled—and continued tenure in office became increasingly dependent on the prime minister. By the late 1970s, when Menachem Begin—the undisputed leader of the Likud party—became prime minister, the office became even more active in dealing directly with the most pressing issues, including those that the prime minister personally addressed and those of great national importance.

In contrast to the highly fragmented Knesset, the executive has traditionally been highly unified, and policy‐making has been firmly in the hands of the prime minister. Party discipline, a dominant party, and unchallenged party leadership during Israel's first three decades culminated not only in executive encroachment on the legislature, but outright defiance of the latter by the former. The legislature can attempt to influence the substance of policies, primarily through coalition politics and a strong committee system, but it rarely initiates them. Moreover, within the executive we see prime ministerial encroachment on the government. Indeed, Israeli politicians and the Israeli public expect the prime minister to be the predominant figure and to play a leadership role. Prime ministers who have emphasized consensual, collegial decision‐making have been criticized for being weak and indecisive. The most important policy initiatives, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy issues, have by and large been initiated by the prime minister.

In order to assess personal leadership styles, it is important to look at Israeli politics after 1977, when the first rotation in government took place. Between then and the implementation of the electoral reform in 1996, Israel had four prime ministers, three of whom embarked on personal policy initiatives that changed long‐standing commitments of the government and the political parties involved: in the 1970s, Menachem Begin introduced the land‐for‐peace formula in the peace agreement with Egypt; in the 1980s, Shimon Peres instituted the stringent economic stabilization plan that reined in hyper‐inflation; and, in the 1990s, Yitzhak Rabin started the peace process (p.293) with the Palestinians. All three cases are characterized by the central role of the prime minister.4

The managerial style of each prime minister was quite different. Begin was a clear leader who allowed only a few trusted advisers to affect his policies. Peres was a manager who preferred consensus to conflict. Rabin was removed from political intricacies, but did not allow any major policy decision without his approval. Regardless, all three practically ignored the political parties, the legislature, the government ministers, the media, and the public until a decision was all but made.

During Begin's negotiations with Egypt, only Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan knew of the preparations and the details. One must remember that Dayan was not a member of Begin's party. The Defence Minister, who was from Begin's Likud Party, was not informed of developments and subsequently resigned. When the outlines of the agreement were reached, Begin reported to his ministers that a meeting had occurred with Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, but not the content of the talks. When the proposal of autonomy for the Palestinians was discussed, which was eventually included in the peace agreement and was much more far‐reaching than either the Likud party platform or the coalition agreement, Begin decided to bring it neither to the government nor to the party central committee. As the negotiations became more intense, the circle of those whom Begin consulted grew smaller. To Camp David, Begin took a team of top civil servants, as if they were the prime minister's staff, and kept most of his veteran political colleagues at home. Despite this blatant bypassing, the latter supported his proposals when they were finally put before the government, with minor reservations. Dayan (1976: 173) wrote, ‘I served in the governments of Ben‐Gurion, Eshkol, and Golda Meir. But never had I seen ministers bending so completely to the will of the prime minister.’

Peres, on the other hand, combined centralization with coordination, keeping many ministers ignorant of policy initiatives while co‐opting as many as needed in order to advance his desired policies. He relied heavily on experts, rather than politicians. He worked in stages, exploring alternatives with experts, providing the chosen ministers with extensive briefings by policy specialists, steering decisions to different forums, mediating, and delaying until he felt the moment was right. The full details were decided in complete secrecy, outside the party, parliament, government, and media. For example, when the economic stabilization plan was to be approved, the government meeting was called immediately after a regular cabinet meeting adjourned, to avoid any political or public input; and it was finally approved after a 19‐hour marathon session—the longest in Israeli history.

Rabin, unlike Begin and Peres, was not a politician, but entered politics after a distinguished military career. He was private and intent on maintaining control. When secret negotiations began between Israel and the (p.294) Palestinians, only a handful knew of them. As the process progressed, Rabin kept most of the relevant information from the parliament and even his government. He was just as reticent with his closest colleagues, who considered resigning when they realized what had transpired. For example, the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestinians (the ‘Oslo Agreement’) was signed on 20 August 1993, nine days before the Israeli government knew anything about it. However, once the policy initiative was unveiled, the ministers supported it overwhelmingly.5

Begin, Peres, and Rabin, like dominant leaders before them, made extensive use of the growing powers that the office of prime minister afforded them. Indeed, they exploited the possibilities presented to them. By relying on personal advisers and keeping most of their colleagues in the dark, they qualitatively shifted the locus of power to the prime minister, and changed the way power was exercised.

One consequence of the earlier structural presidentialization was a gradual shift from collective to individual control over the formulation of governmental programmes. This process was accompanied by—and also encouraged—parallel shifts within the political parties, such as the growth of the leader's power and a greater emphasis on the leader during election campaigns. There were other structural factors that played an important role as well, such as the international nature of Israel's most pressing political problem, foreign affairs, and security—which would become its dominant dimension of electoral competition—and helped pave the way toward structural presidentialization.6 The gradual, de facto shift toward greater personal visibility, accountability, and power subsequently led to formal changes in institutional arrangements. The Israeli prime minister, during the era of pure parliamentarism and in spite of the multiparty nature of both the Knesset and the governing coalitions, continually reinforced and consolidated his power. The trend of formal strengthening resulted in the clear predominance of the prime minister over the government, and of the government over the parliament.

The de facto presidentialization of Israel's parliamentary democracy was therefore in effect long before the direct election of the prime minister was adopted. In other words, the definition of the prime minister's position as primus inter pares gradually eroded. Thus, it is quite appropriate to speak of a phenomenon of presidentialization occurring within Israel's parliamentary democracy prior to the 1990s, and it entailed both structural and contingent sources of change.

The electoral‐constitutional reform in the mid‐1990s, however, did not simply make the implicit explicit, but was quite a radical departure. Moreover, as will be shown below, the electoral reform strengthened the prime minister constitutionally, but undermined much of the prior de facto concentration of power in his hands.

(p.295) Constitutional presidentialization

The monumental reform of the ‘Basic Law: The Government’ changed the electoral, political, and constitutional systems in Israel.7 This law—originally enacted in 1968, amended in 1992, and implemented in 1996—made Israel the first country to elect its prime minister directly, concurrently with the parliamentary elections (see Fig. 13.1). The prime minister was elected using the two‐ballot system—similar to French and Russian presidential elections—thus requiring an absolute majority. In the event, each of the three direct elections of the prime minister featured only two candidates, as Table 13.1 shows. The Israeli Knesset continued to be elected by an extreme form of proportional representation on the same day as the first round of the prime ministerial election.

The electoral reform had a profound effect on the constitutional form of the government itself. The directly elected prime minister had the power to nominate the government, but a parliamentary vote of investiture was required before the government could take office and begin to function.8 At any time during the prime minister's tenure, he could be ousted by a parliamentary vote of no‐confidence, carried by a bare majority of 61 out of the 120 Members of Knesset (MKs). However, removal of the prime minister in this fashion would have brought about the dissolution of the Knesset as well, heralding new elections for both.9 By the same token, the prime minister had the power to dissolve the Knesset, though this would have ended his tenure as well, and once again forced new elections for both.

The main constitutional effect of the new law was that Israel ceased to be a purely parliamentary democracy, thanks to its direct election of the prime

The Failure of Presidential Parliamentarism: The Failure of Presidential Parliamentarism: Constitutional versus Structural Constitutional versus Structural Presidentialization in Israel's Presidentialization in Israel's Parliamentary Democracy

Fig. 13.1. The pre‐ (1948–96) and the post‐reform (1996–2003) electoral and political systems in Israel


Table 13.1. Prime ministerial election results

29 MAY 1996

17 MAY 1999

6 FEB 2001


# Votes



# Votes



# Votes


Benjamin  Netanyahu



Ehud  Barak



Ariel  Sharon



Shimon  Peres



Benjamin  Netanyahu



Ehud  Barak



minister. Under parliamentarism, the executive emerges from and is responsible to the legislature—a fusion of powers—whereas under presidentialism, there is a separation of executive origin and survival from the legislature. As of 1996, with the direct election of the prime minister, the head of the executive branch no longer emerged from the legislature but was separately elected. The direct popular election of the prime minister dismantled the parliamentary system that Israel had used since its creation. Israel thus no longer belonged to the parliamentary regimes category, yet, neither did it cross into the presidential category, because while the prime minister was elected separately, he continued to be responsible to the Knesset and was a member of it—an apparent violation of the separation of powers principle.

Israel moved closer to being ‘semi‐presidential’, like the French Fifth Republic. Semi‐presidentialism (Duverger 1980), or premier‐presidentialism (Shugart and Carey 1992), is a regime in which a directly elected president coexists with a government headed by a premier who rests on parliamentary confidence. In semi‐presidentialism, a dual executive serves to apportion power between the executive and the legislature. When the directly elected president has the support of the legislature, power rests in the hands of the president. However, when the president is faced with a hostile legislative majority, the prime minister can take control of the reins of power. As Aron (1982: 8) wrote, ‘the President of the Republic is the supreme authority as long as he has a majority in the National Assembly; but he must abandon the reality of power to the prime minister if ever a party other than his own has a majority in the Assembly.’ This is also true for other semi‐presidential systems, such as Finland and post‐1982 Portugal, which have experienced opposing executive and legislative majorities.

This flexible and intermediate type of regime was not exactly the case in Israel, though. When the legislative and executive majorities coincided—the results of the 1996 and 1999 elections—Israel's political system functioned much like the French system does when the president has a supportive legislature. But, when the legislative and executive majorities did not coincide, there was no parliamentary‐supported premier in Israel to lead a government backed by the legislature. In Israel, it was the directly elected (p.297) prime minister himself who headed the government and rested on parliamentary confidence. So in this case, the Israeli prime minister, and the entire executive branch, found themselves confronting a hostile legislature, akin to the situation of divided majorities in a presidential regime—with the important difference that presidents cannot be removed from power by a hostile legislature. In the event when the directly elected prime ministers saw their legislative majorities collapse, their response was not to continue governing in a presidential manner—for example, by building ad hoc legislative coalitions on particular issues—but either to support early elections for both prime minister and parliament (as Netanyahu did in 1998) or to resign and hold new elections for only the prime minister (as Barak did in 2000).


The implementation of direct elections for the prime minister had consequences for each of the faces of presidentialization outlined by Poguntke and Webb in Chapter 1. While this was largely expected in respect of the electoral and party faces, the changes experienced in respect of the executive were not only unexpected, they were also responsible for the subsequent abolition of direct elections.

Consequences for the electoral and party faces

In order to win the necessary absolute majority, the main parties understood that their prime ministerial candidates would have to attract voters from other parties. The race for the prime minister thus had to be ‘above’ parties. Their candidates, therefore, conducted campaigns that were practically devoid of any party connection. The major parties, for their part, not only accepted this clear priority and allowed the campaign to focus on the prime ministerial race, but held back from competing with the smaller parties, fearing that a challenge in the Knesset race would mean that the smaller parties would not support their candidate for prime minister. Both Labour and Likud were thus willing to sacrifice seats in the proportional Knesset election in order to win the majoritarian prime ministerial race.

Moreover, prior to both the 1996 and 1999 elections, Israel's two major parties created two separate election headquarters, one for the prime ministerial election and one for the Knesset election. Despite a series of struggles within each party concerning the prevalence of one campaign over the other, the result was the same in both parties: there was only one comprehensive campaign, not two, and the race for prime minister came first. Moreover, the (p.298) Knesset race was not only relegated to a position of secondary importance, it was largely absent from the campaigns of the two largest parties. Both parties thought, correctly, that whoever won the contest for prime minister would be able to form a supporting majority coalition in the Knesset. In short, it is plain to see that the prime ministerial candidates were able to usurp attention, finances, and organizational resources from their parties: the separate and predominant prime ministerial election thus increased the intra‐party power of leaders.

The all‐embracing focus in terms of party funds, campaign time, and organizational effort on the election of the prime minister culminated in the creation of cross‐party alliances by the party leaders. These alliances, aimed at winning the necessary absolute majority in the prime ministerial contest, were not accepted with enthusiasm by the main parties. For example, in 1996, Netanyahu created a formal alliance between three parties to advance a single candidate for prime minister and a single list for the Knesset election. In exchange for the two smaller parties removing their prime ministerial candidates, they were allotted one‐third of the seats on the joint Likud‐led parliamentary list—a much higher percentage than any poll suggested they would obtain on their own. In 1999, it was Barak's turn to mould a joint list of three parties, with positions allocated to the minor partners on the Labour‐led list in exchange for their support of his prime ministerial candidacy. In other words, the two main parties not only had most of their financial, electoral, and organizational efforts usurped by their leaders—who had but a single goal of winning the executive contest—but these same leaders were also willing to decapitate their own parties by paying a high price to the small parties in exchange for their support in the prime ministerial race: that price was paid in terms of their own parties' representation in parliament.

There were other elements as well that characterized this presidentialization of the electoral process in the Israeli case. When the Knesset adopted the direct election of the prime minister in March 1992, it also decided that this reform would not come into effect in the forthcoming elections that year, but only in subsequent elections. Regardless, the parties immediately started to gear up for the new system. Labour, for example, already adopted party primaries for choosing its prime ministerial candidate for the 1992 election. After selecting Rabin, the party then officially changed its name to ‘Labour Headed by Rabin’—even though this was still a single‐ballot, fixed‐list national parliamentary election. Likud followed suit, and adopted party primaries after the 1992 election.

The kind of candidates the two main parties selected also changed dramatically. Instead of seasoned parliamentary veterans, who slowly and painfully climbed the party ladder, the electoral reform brought an entirely new type of candidate to the head of the party. Netanyahu was selected as leader (p.299) of Likud at the start of only his second term in parliament, due to the personal characteristics he possessed that were now appropriate in a candidate‐centred contest. Barak was chosen to lead Labour less than a year after being elected to parliament for the first time. The main parties in Israel thus entered a new era in which they were forced to ‘accept’ leaders who were thrust upon them—similar to the parties in the US—by the exigencies of the new electoral and political system that created a direct relationship between the head of the executive branch and the voters. Moreover, since the parties accepted their new leaders due to their electoral potential, once they lost an election they were immediately replaced: both Netanyahu and Barak announced their resignation from the party leadership as soon as the exit polls showed that they had lost.

Consequences for the executive face

Beyond their desire to strengthen the head of the executive, and thereby enhance governability, the reformers hoped that the direct election of the prime minister would also reduce the size, number, and influence of the smaller parties in the Knesset, without changing the proportional nature of the electoral system used to elect it. These smaller parties granted disproportionate influence to sub‐groups in Israeli society, which resulted in governing coalitions that became more and more difficult to maintain. That is, the proponents of reform hoped that a separate ballot for the prime minister, with its requirement of an absolute majority, would reduce the prime ministerial race to the two main parties and encourage ‘straight‐ticket’ voting in the second ballot for the Knesset, as well.10 The results of the 1996 and 1999 Knesset elections were, however, quite the opposite. The availability of ‘split‐ticket’ voting actually increased the multiparty composition of the Knesset, while the two main parties were decimated.11 In other words, the electoral reform not only failed to attack the problem for which it was designed, but actually made it worse.12

Ballot‐splitting—a hitherto unavailable option in Israeli elections—decreased the combined strength of the two major parties (Labour and Likud) from 76 to 66 seats in the 1996 elections, a reduction of 13 per cent, and then to 45 seats in the 1999 elections, a further reduction of 32 per cent. The sectarian parties—those representing a particular sub‐group in society—increased their representation from 21 to 39 seats in the 1996 elections, a growth of 86 per cent, and to 47 seats in the 1999 elections, a total increase of 224 per cent. These included the religious parties, who represent the orthodox Jewish minority and whose seats increased from 16 to 23 in the 1996 elections, and to 27 in the 1999 elections; the Arab parties, who represent the national minority in Israel and whose seats rose from 5 to 9 in 1996, and to 10 in 1999; and the immigrants' parties, who represent the Russian (p.300) ethnic minority, and won 7 seats for the first time in 1996, and 10 in 1999 (see Table 13.2).

Not only did ballot‐splitting increase fragmentation in the Israeli party system, it reduced the strength of all of the main ideological and aggregating parties while it exacerbated sectarian tensions along the three main contentious cleavages in Israeli society: between religious and secular Jews; Arabs and Jews; and natives and immigrants. In other words, while the social

Table 13.2. Pre‐ (1992) and post‐reform (1996 and 1999) election results for the Israeli Knesset [number of seats]







Democratic Front for Peace and Equality




United Arab List




National Democratic Alliancea



One Nation















Yisrael B'aliyah



Third Way



Sephardi Torah Guardiansc




United Torah Judaism




National Religious Party











Yisrael Beitenu


National Unityf





Total seats




♥ Parties (3) forming the 1992 coalition government headed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

♦ Parties (6) forming the 1996 coalition government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

♣ Parties (7) forming the 1999 coalition government headed by Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

▴ Parties (8) forming the 2001 coalition government headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

a In 1996, the newly formed National Democratic Alliance ran together with the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality.

b In 1999, Labour joined with Gesher and Meimad to form a joint list called One Israel.

c In 1992 and 1996, Shinui was part of the Meretz alliance.

d In 1992, Likud ran alone and won 32 seats. In 1996, the joint Likud‐Gesher‐Tsomet list won 32 seats, of which 22 were Likud and 5 each were for Gesher and Tsomet. In 1999, Likud ran alone and won 19 seats.

e In 1996, Tsomet ran with Likud and won 5 seats (see note d above).

f In 1999, the newly formed National Unity party was based on splits from the Likud and the National Religious Party, and incorporated the Moledet party.

g In 1999, Moledet ran as part of the National Unity party (see note f above).

(p.301) cleavages in Israeli society were kept at bay by a single‐ballot electoral system and existential security issues which dominated politics, the adoption of a second ballot allowed these social cleavages to gain a substantial foothold in the party system (Lijphart et al. 2000).

The results of the only two instances of separate executive and legislative elections were, therefore, dramatic. The largest party list in the Knesset was reduced to its lowest point ever, while the parties representing the three sub‐cultural minorities in Israeli society—religious Jews, Arabs, and immigrants—together gained more seats than the two largest parties in the Israeli party system. The increase in representation of the sectarian parties, compared to the two main parties, is presented in Fig. 13.2.

After the 1999 elections, the two largest parties together held only 45 seats—38 per cent of the total number of seats—which is the lowest number of seats they have ever won. The main party on the right, Likud, and the main party on the left, Labour, each won their lowest number of seats ever. While the reformers had hoped to strengthen the incipient bipolarization in Israeli politics, which resulted from the development of a competitive two‐bloc structure from the mid‐1970s, they instead brought about its breakdown and Balkanization.

The implications for governability in light of this decline, and the concurrent upsurge in sectarian representation, are clear. With direct elections, the

The Failure of Presidential Parliamentarism: The Failure of Presidential Parliamentarism: Constitutional versus Structural Constitutional versus Structural Presidentialization in Israel's Presidentialization in Israel's Parliamentary Democracy

*Religious, Arab and immigrant parties. Fig. 13.2. Party seats in the Israeli Knesset, 1949–99 (total = 120)

(p.302) decision of who would be prime minister was no longer in the hands of party leaders, and no longer the result of extensive horse‐trading in the process of creating a coalition government. Yet, while the directly elected prime ministers were able to create a supportive legislative majority coalition relatively easily—since the smaller parties could no longer act as king‐makers but faced a simple decision of being in or out—they each confronted the increasingly difficult tasks of keeping the coalition intact and sustaining its legislative discipline. Ballot‐splitting had eroded the size of the two major parties and increased the size and number of necessary coalition partners, thereby undermining the nucleus of automatic support for either prime ministerial candidate. The Likud Party in 1996 and the Labour Party in 1999, whose candidates won the first two directly elected prime ministerial contests and who headed the two subsequent coalition governments, did hold the largest number of seats in their respective coalitions, but they only constituted minorities within these coalitions (22 of 66 legislators in 1996, and 26 of 75 in 1999)—the only two times this had occurred in Israel's history.13 The dominance of the prime ministerial race thus, paradoxically, served to weaken the governing capabilities of the directly elected prime minister.

The consequences of adopting a new electoral system in Israel, and the resulting presidentialized political system, are thus quite reminiscent of presidential systems that use proportional representation for their legislative elections, both empirically and theoretically (Shugart and Carey 1992: Ch. 11). However, the extent of divergence in electoral outcomes for the two branches was greater in Israel than in any of the other cases that use concurrent elections.

The need to include an ever growing number of parties, who were continuously increasing their share of parliamentary seats, forced the constitutionally presidentialized prime minister to allocate more government ministries and more of the national budget to his coalition partners, thereby further constraining his ability to govern and to control the agenda of government. For example, the average percentage of ministers from the prime minister's party in the twenty‐six governments during the era of pure parliamentarism (1949–96) was about two‐thirds, and never below 50 per cent.14 In contrast, the governments formed by directly elected prime ministers had an average of just over 40 per cent of the ministers coming from their party, and never over 50 per cent. Moreover, the distribution of the national budget—measured by the budget‐weighted portfolio allocations that each coalition partner obtained, divided by the number of seats the party had in parliament—shows that the smaller coalition partners did better than the larger (that is, the prime minister's) ones, particularly after the electoral reform (Nachmias and Sened 1999).

As regards voting behaviour, the availability of two ballots allowed each voter not only to split the ballot, but also to create a hierarchy of voting (p.303) intentions for each ballot based on different motivations. Since the two prime ministerial candidates competed primarily on the dominant dimension in Israeli politics, that is, foreign affairs and security, the voters adopted this dimension as the main criterion for choosing a candidate. For Knesset elections, however, parties presented much more specific appeals as some of them correctly realized that, with more than one ballot available, it was now possible to compete on an entirely different dimension while remaining neutral on that of foreign policy and security. As a result, voters could now express a more particular identity. Voters were thus able to express both a national interest and a rather narrow social or ideological identity, by selecting from a multidimensional menu of parties on two distinct ballots. This is, again, precisely what one sees in presidential systems (Shugart and Carey 1992: Chapters 1, 2, and 9). The prime ministerial elections became the arena for general ideas—the ‘representation of ideas’ in Pitkin's (1976) words—while the Knesset became the arena for more precise ideas—the ‘representation of presence’ according to Phillips (1995). The political parties in the Knesset that either gained entrance or enlarged their representation—with the single exception of the Centre party in 1999—were the less aggregative ones which sought a more specific social or ideological voter base. Instead of social groups being represented within parties, they became represented by parties. Incentives for negotiation and compromise between social groups also decreased, due to the increased reflection of social cleavages in the party system.

The loss of almost one‐half of the two main parties' seats, and the dramatic increase in the representation of sectarian parties, thus created a multidimensional party system with centrifugal social pressures. The two main parties did not try to preclude the possibility of vote‐splitting by the electorate, but actually supported and even augmented this new phenomenon, which resulted in their own decline. The new, mixed electoral system did not produce the best of two worlds, but instead what Sartori (2000) calls a bastard parliament that served no purpose. The already overloaded Israeli political system (Horowitz and Lissak 1989) thus became even more burdened after the 1996 and 1999 elections.

The direct election of the head of the executive—constitutional presidentialization—thus failed to achieve its goal of enhancing the prime minister's powers of governing. On the contrary, effective prime ministerial governing capability was undermined due to the production of a sectarian‐centrifugal Knesset via ballot‐splitting (Hazan and Rahat 2000). In other words, the constitutional presidentialization of Israel's essentially parliamentary democracy served to undermine the structural presidentialization that had been in place before.

Moreover, the electoral reforms influenced legislative behaviour. During the 14th Knesset (1996–9), and the first two years of the 15th Knesset, the (p.304) prime minister's coalition was defeated on numerous issues. Decisions taken by the government were overturned by the legislature due to the abstention of key partners, both in the coalition and within the prime minister's own party, who were holding out for increased pay‐offs. The decline of the major parties and the rise of the sectarian ones made coalition maintenance a full‐time, if practically impossible, task. The efforts of the government to pass its own legislation, or to thwart the opposition's popular and costly bills, largely failed. The annual budgets, for example, were revised by the coalition members in the finance committee, at times with the cooperation of the opposition, to an extent that was previously unknown in Israel.

The directly elected prime minister was unable to reign in the anarchy within both his coalition and his party, and repeatedly castigated his partners for their unruly behaviour. However, the reform should not have been expected to lead to increased executive control over the legislature because, indeed, the direct election of the head of government in democratic presidential systems expands the independence, not the compliance, of the legislature (Laver and Shepsle 1994).

Thus, the governing coalitions in Israel, after the implementation of direct election of the prime minister, exhibited behavioural characteristics that were significantly different from those that preceded it (Hazan 1997). The constitutional presidentialization actually made the prime minister's control of the legislative agenda and output an extremely difficult task, because it became institutionally easy for the evermore socially and politically fragmented Knesset to diminish both the prime minister's legitimacy and his effectiveness. Executive control over the legislature, another one of the electoral reform's goals, was not strengthened but rather weakened. So, while one of the major goals of direct elections was to increase governing capability, by enhancing the de facto presidentialization that had developed earlier, the actual result was constitutional presidentialization alone, ‘virtual’ dominance resulting from the electoral reform, at the expense of de facto presidentialization. That is, as both the popular source of legitimacy and the formal authority of the presidentialized prime minister expanded, so did his dependence on an increasingly fragmented and policy‐incoherent coalition. The constitutionally more powerful prime minister was forced to spend more time and effort than ever before on maintaining, rather than on heading, the government.

One of the results of the increasingly apparent negative consequences of the electoral reform was that public support for the new system deteriorated decisively during the years it was applied, as shown in Fig. 13.3. In a 1992 survey, before it was implemented, three out of four Israelis thought the direct election of the prime minister would be a better system of government. By the time it was repealed in 2001, only one out of four thought it was a better system of government.15 (p.305)

The Failure of Presidential Parliamentarism: The Failure of Presidential Parliamentarism: Constitutional versus Structural Constitutional versus Structural Presidentialization in Israel's Presidentialization in Israel's Parliamentary Democracy

Fig. 13.3. Assessing the direct election of the prime minister

Question: ‘Does the direct election of the prime minister make for a better system of government, a worse one, or does it not make any difference?’

Source: Israel Election Study 2001.


In Chapter 1, Poguntke and Webb outline a model of presidentialization as a process by which regimes become more presidential in their actual practice, without necessarily changing their formal regime structure. Thus, the presidentialization of parliamentary democracy entails increasing leadership power resources and autonomy within the party and the executive, and increasingly leadership‐centred electoral processes. Presidentialization flows across these three faces largely from structural and contingent, rather than constitutional, factors.

The formal‐constitutional patterns are differentiated between distinct regime types: parliamentary, semi‐presidential, and presidential. This is not a continuum, but a categorization based on three rigidly partitioned regime types. Thus, semi‐presidentialism is not a half‐way point between the two polar alternatives, but rather a constitutionally distinct regime.

The Israeli case, from 1996 to 2003, fell into the semi‐presidential category, in so far as the executive leader was both separately elected and responsible to parliament. Despite the differences between Israel and other semi‐presidential cases, such as France, Finland, and Portugal, it is clear that Israel no longer belonged to the parliamentary category, but neither did it enter the presidential type. The question that remains is how this rare form of constitutional innovation relates to the political and electoral aspects of de facto presidentialization outlined by Poguntke and Webb.

In terms of leadership power within the party, it is quite clear that the prime ministerial candidates were able to usurp attention, finances, and (p.306) organizational resources from their parties, with little or no objection. The separate and predominant prime ministerial election thus increased the power of the leader within the party. Both Netanyahu and Barak, prior to their election victories, were able to solidify control of their respective parties by, for example, changing the composition of the central committees to include a majority of their supporters. After the election victory, the direct mandate gave the prime minister even more legitimacy and control over his party. For example, the allocation of ministerial portfolios was left completely to his discretion, which had hitherto not been the case.16 However, while the prime minister had the power to organize his party's cabinet representatives without significant interference, he was forced to accept the dictates of those parties, ever increasing in number and size, that he would need in order to form a parliamentary majority and assume office. Moreover, the demise of his own party's parliamentary strength made his ability to head the executive and govern more difficult, rather than less, compared to the period before the constitutional reform. In short, the directly elected prime minister had a legitimate mandate and increased power within his party, but this did not translate into enhanced executive power and governing capability.

Of course, in other fragmented multiparty systems (such as Belgium and the Netherlands) we sometimes find this does not preclude the development of strong, ‘presidentialized’ prime ministers. However, in the Israeli case, the main effect of constitutional presidentialization was not only a further fragmentation of the party system, but a specific kind of breakdown based on sectarian issues that escalated centrifugal social pressures (Hazan and Rahat 2000). Such fragmentation, at the expense of the two main parties, made it practically impossible for the constitutionally strong prime minister to handle the situation by establishing himself as chief negotiator. While the directly elected prime minister could claim popular legitimacy, he became increasingly dependent on an extremely partified and socially centrifugal parliament that made any coalition tenuous at best.

Thus, although the directly elected prime minister was protected from pressures to oust him from both inside and outside his party, because the price for bringing him down was the dissolution of parliament,17 this did not mean that he was protected from the daily pressures of running an increasingly heterogeneous and conflictual coalition. While his own party stood behind him, he lacked a majority in the governing coalition, due to the voters' tendency to split their ballots. Leadership autonomy for the directly elected prime minister in Israel was based on both electoral appeal and organizational control, rather than just on the former, due to the parliamentary aspects of Israel's transformed regime. In short, despite having leadership autonomy within the party, the prime minister did not have protection from political pressures, nor was his survival assured—the terms in office of all three directly elected premiers ended prematurely.

(p.307) The electoral aspect of presidentialization, manifested in the personalization of the electoral process, has been the most evident that Israel has exhibited. Indeed, practically all aspects of the electoral contest were moulded by the personalities of the leading candidates during the period of direct election, and the predominance of this contest had significant spillover effects on the parliamentary elections as well (Hazan 1999a, 2001).

The repeal of the direct election of the prime minister prior to the parliamentary elections of 2003 has already reversed many of the developments evident during the period of reform, thus making an impact on each face of presidentialization. The power resources and the autonomy of the party leader within the party have diminished once again, since the leader no longer receives a separate and direct mandate from the electorate at large, but merely heads the party list. Prime ministers are once again elected because of and together with their party, rather than individually, and at times despite, their party.

Conversely, power resources and autonomy of the prime minister within the executive has been augmented by the repeal of direct elections. The simple fact that the prime minister's party was able to reverse its decline in 2003—it actually doubled its parliamentary strength—allowed the party not only to regain a majority within the coalition but also to reduce the number of necessary coalition partners. Governing stability and capability returned, permitting the prime minister once again to devote more time to heading, rather than maintaining, the government. Moreover, the weakening of the sectarian parties, which crippled the three directly elected prime ministers and their governments, diminished not only the centrifugal social tendencies in the party system but also the policy‐incoherence of the coalition.

The electoral attributes of presidentialization have also been weakened by the repeal of direct prime ministerial election, but not to such a great extent. Despite the fact that there was no longer an individual ballot in the 2003 elections, the media remained largely candidate‐centred in its coverage. The parties, which were practically absent in the two previous elections, returned to the forefront of the campaign but still took a secondary position to the leaders. The premature collapse of the government, and the ‘snap’ election, could help explain why the media did not internalize the full significance of the return to a single‐ballot fixed party list electoral system and a purely parliamentary political system.

The conclusion from the Israeli case is that the various attributes of de facto presidentialization need not go hand‐in‐hand. The presidentialization of the electoral process does not necessarily lead to the presidentialization of executive or party power; they are thus not causally linked. While the electoral face of presidentialization might be amplified by factors that are contingent and structural as well as constitutionally formal, the executive face might be pushed closer to the ‘partified’ pole of the continuum rather (p.308) than the presidentialized pole, and could actually be undermined by the unexpected and reciprocal consequences of electoral presidentialization. Although the directly elected prime ministers in Israel inferred that their personal mandate justified a more dominant role within the executive, the Knesset taught each of them that Israel had retained an essentially parliamentary form of government.

Israel was, after 1996, no longer purely parliamentary nor purely presidential, but was closest to being semi‐presidential. However, since the Israeli case needed to be placed at two points simultaneously within the semi‐presidential category—the electoral and party faces closer to presidentialized government and the executive face nearer to partified government—it might be fitting to distinguish it from the other semi‐presidential cases. Therefore, when attempting to describe the institutionally unique and hybrid type of political regime in Israel between 1996 and 2003, it may be best, and most appropriate, to call it presidential parliamentarism (Hazan 1996).

Is the Israeli version of presidential parliamentarism the best of both worlds? Sartori (1994: 135; italics in original) declared, ‘I believe that the case against the two extremes, pure presidentialism and pure parliamentarism, is a strong one. By the same token, I believe that the positive case for “mixed systems” is equally strong.’ Regretfully, the Israeli version of a mixed system was not the best of both worlds, and might actually have been the worst (Hazan 2001.). As Sartori (1994: 153) warned:

Presidentialism and parliamentarism are single‐engine mechanisms. In the first system the engine is the president, in the second the engine is parliament…Semi‐presidentialism is, instead, a double‐engine system. However, since its two engines operate simultaneously, what if they start pulling in opposite directions and work against one another? While the French system is able to handle divided government, still the risk of having two counter‐pulling engines cannot be ruled out.

The Israeli modification of semi‐presidentialism allowed neither the principles of parliamentarism nor those of presidentialism to dominate, but rather created incongruous operating principles. The result was a presidentialized prime minister who, in order to govern and survive, relied on an increasingly polarized, fragmented, fractionalized, and sectarian parliament. This combination was dangerous, not only for the effectiveness of Israel's government, but also for the stability of its democracy.

The primary lesson to be learned from the Israeli case is that if presidentialization is not a result of structural developments in the sense outlined in the opening chapter of this book, such as the erosion of social cleavages, the changing structure of mass communication or the internationalization of politics, or derived from contingent factors such as prime ministerial personality, but flows from constitutional reform, then the latter must be properly designed in order not to undermine the efficiency and stability of the entire (p.309) democratic system. Moreover, the Israeli case teaches us that long‐term structurally derived developments can be undermined, or even reversed, by constitutional changes.

The Israeli decision to graft a majoritarian, presidentialized prime minister onto a proportional parliamentary infrastructure resulted in a unique constellation, and an extreme manifestation, of the presidentialization of politics in democratic societies. In the form that it took in Israel, it produced more negative consequences than positive results. Other countries have discussed the possibility of adopting such a system, but in light of the Israeli experience they should clearly think twice before embarking on such a perilous journey. Israel was able to extricate itself rather quickly from this debacle—others might not be as fortunate.



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(1.) The term ‘constitutional’ must be used with reservation in Israel, because the country lacks a codified constitution. Instead, a series of Basic Laws have been formulated and adopted over time. These Basic Laws, of which there are eleven, are the building blocks of the Israeli constitution‐in‐the‐making. The term constitutional throughout this chapter refers to the formal legal framework of Israeli democracy.

(2.) Israel's proportionality was surpassed in 1956 by the Netherlands, when the Tweede Kamer was enlarged from 100 to 150 representatives.

(3.) Arian et al. 2002 (Chapter 3) describe the growth in prime ministerial power according to four distinct phases: 1949–66, characterized by the definition and specification of the office's functions and structures; 1967–77, marked by reorganization and concentration of power in the office; 1977–92, which was concerned with refining the organizational structures of the office; since 1992, the phase of personalization of the office (due to the direct election of the prime minister).

(4.) This section draws heavily on Chapter 6 of Arian et al. 2002.

(5.) Rabin's dominant leadership role in this process is partially responsible for his being singled out and subsequently assassinated by a person who wanted to terminate this policy.

(6.) It is fascinating to observe that, in The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton pointed out that war naturally increases the power of the executive at the expense of the legislative authority, explaining that, ‘the direction of war most peculiarly demands those qualities which distinguish the exercise of power by a single hand.’ This phenomenon has recently manifested itself even in a presidential regime, for, after the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the United States is witnessing the most dramatic expansion in presidential power in a generation.

(7.) For a discussion of the politics leading to the electoral reform, see Diskin and Diskin (1995). For a description and analysis of the new system, see Hazan (1996, 1997). For contrasting opinions concerning this kind of system, see Bogdanor (1993), Lijphart (1993), and Sartori (1994).

(8.) If the Knesset did not approve the prime minister's government, the result would have been new elections for both the Knesset and the prime minister. It is interesting to note that this vote of investiture was not part of the original bill, but was added later during the committee phase. One of the proponents of the electoral‐constitutional reform, who opposed the inclusion of such a vote of investiture, explained why it did not belong: ‘The moment that one enables the Knesset, or that one says that the Knesset ought to express a vote of confidence in the prime minister, the meaning is that the Knesset is given the power to annul the mandate that the prime minister received from the people.’ Uriel Lynn, Chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, 21 November 1990. Quoted in Ottolenghi (2001: 122).

(9.) It is interesting to note that according to the original bill, in order for the Knesset to oust the prime minister it would have needed the support of at least 70 MKs, and not 61. This, along with the lack of a vote of investiture (see note 8), made the original bill more ‘presidential’ than the one that was eventually adopted, in that there would have been greater separation of powers.

(10.) It is rather striking that there was an expectation by the reformers that the prime ministerial race would be limited to only two candidates, even if they did prove to be right. After all, one would expect the two‐round system to promote a first round with several candidates, which almost happened in 1999; see Shugart and Taagepera (1994). For a discussion of the expectations versus the results of the direct election of the prime minister, see Ottolenghi (2001).

(11.) Literature on divided government in the United States (Jacobson 1991; Fiorina 1992) is instructive on how this possibility could have been foreseen. Moreover, some of the political scientists in Israel warned of this danger while the electoral reforms were still under deliberation.

(12.) It is interesting to note that some of the smaller parties did not oppose the electoral reforms when they were deliberated and adopted. Maybe they were more confident of the ‘rationality’ of the Israeli voters, of their ability to split their votes, and of the unique opportunity the electoral reform would give them not only to survive, but to thrive.

(13.) This does not include the deviant cases of national unity (grand) coalitions, where neither of the two major parties comprised, by themselves, majorities within the coalition.

(14.) Again, this does not include the deviant cases of national unity (grand) coalitions, where the prime minister's party did not, by itself, comprise a majority within the government.

(15.) The return to a single‐ballot parliamentary election, according to the 2001 version of The Basic Law: The Government, went into effect with the parliamentary elections of 2003.

(16.) Prospective ministers, and thereby members of the party leadership, lined up outside the prime minister elect's office—under the lights of the television cameras—and were each asked to enter for a few minutes to find out if and what portfolio they would be given.

(17.) This was the case unless those opposed to the prime minister could muster two‐thirds of the parliament to oust him from office—a rare occurrence which was never achieved during the era of presidential parliamentarism in Israel.