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Israel MPs take first step toward electoral reform

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Israeli lawmakers stand during a swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 5, 2013. Israel's parliament has taken the first tentative steps towards reining in the country's extreme form of proportional representation in a bid to make governments more stable. (AFP/File)

Israel's parliament has taken the first tentative steps towards reining in the country's extreme form of proportional representation in a bid to make governments more stable.

The bill, which is backed by larger parties but strongly opposed by smaller factions representing Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, was approved at first reading by 64 votes to 49 with one abstention.

The text, which would raise the threshold for parties to win seats in parliament from two percent to four, still needs to be approved at two further readings to become law.

If passed, the law would force the smaller parties that draw their support largely or exclusively from among Israel's Arab and Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox minorities to field joint lists or risk not winning any seats.

Its supporters argue that the reform is essential to bring stability to a political system that has often seen governing coalitions being held hostage to demands from smaller parties out of proportion to their actual electoral support.

The bill was jointly sponsored by the secularist Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beitenu parties, both part of the governing coalition.

"This is another step toward strengthening Israel as a normal democratic country," said Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu.

If the bill comes into effect, "the government that the people chose can really govern for the citizens' benefit," Lieberman, a former foreign minister currently on trial for corruption, told the Haaretz newspaper.

The bill's second reading is set for October.