On 31 July 2013, the “Governance Bill” passed its first reading in the Israeli Knesset, with 63 MKs voting for and 46 against.
The bill amends the Basic Law: The government.
It includes a limit of the number of government ministers to 19 and of the deputy ministers to four. Motions of no-confidence will be held only once a month in the presence of the prime minister or at the demand of 61 MKs, in which case the debate will be held immediately. If the motion of no-confidence is carried by a 61 MKs majority, and an alternative candidate for prime minister proposed and accepted, the candidate will have 21 days to form a government instead of the current 28.
Should the candidate fail, the deposed government will return to the cabinet.
The bill also determines that if the coalition does not manage to pass the state budget within three months, the Knesset will be dissolved.
After the general elections, the government will have 55 days to form a state budget, and the Knesset 45 days to pass it. All these amendments have strong reasoning behind them.
The most controversial part of the bill is the raising of the election threshold to four percent.
This part of the bill received the support of 64 MKs. Opposition members of Knesset from Meretz (the civil rights party), United Torah Judaism, Arab parties and several MKs from the Labour party took the Knesset podium and protested against the “anti-democratic” bill.
Since 1987 I have written on democracy and its inherent problems, speaking in favor of its obligation to defend itself. In elucidating the theory of Democracy on the Defensive, I explained that the very principles that underline democracy might undermine its existence.
Democracy is founded on the idea of liberty.
But if we allow limitless liberty to each and every person to pursue what she perceives to be her conception of the good, the result will be anarchy.
Democracy is built on the idea of tolerance.
But if we tolerate violent, coercive and antidemocratic groups in society, this might bring about the destruction of the democratic order.
Democracy is built on the idea of participation.
Indeed, the idea of participation is so important that many call present-day democracy “participatory democracy.” Citizens should exercise their potential ability to influence the decision-making process, while the government, on its part, should encourage individuals and groups to take part in civic life.
But if each and every citizen swamps the government with everyday demands, organizes constant demonstrations, pickets and rallies, then the government will find it difficult to function.
Democracy is built on the idea of representation.
Each citizen is to have an equal vote to influence the outcomes of the legislative process; each citizen alienates his right for political decision-making and gives authority to a few delegates to manage the civic life in the way they see best. These representatives are chosen by the people to decide for them, ideally according to the lines prescribed in their political platform. This elections process is the mechanism which gives effect to the difference between democratic and non-democratic modes of representation.
While decision-making processes should aspire to take into account as many interests as possible, there is no obligation to consider each and every interest in society. This would be nearly impossible, or impossible. Democracy should aspire to ensure adequate representation, but it is not obligated to represent each and every view.
Thus, there is a tension between each and every democratic principle. A good government has to find the right balance between each and every principle, and in the interplay between the principles.
I have argued for years that Israel should increase the entry threshold to the Knesset to 4% or 5%. This in order to ensure better governance capabilities. I also argued this when I was active in the Meretz Party. I cannot say that I gained many supporters within my party for that view, but I sincerely believe this is the right thing to do. The Knesset has far too many parties. As a result, many governments did not complete their terms. Fragile coalitions, tempting deals, blackmailing efforts, partisan interests – all these factors have undermined Israeli governance.
A good government is one that does not distort the representative system in favor of the majority; that ensures and protects an adequate proportional representation of minorities.
Nothing but a false show of democracy is possible without it. John Stuart Mill said: “In a really equal democracy, every or any section would be represented, not disproportionately, but proportionately.” This can be done also with fewer parties represented in the Knesset.
The United States has two major parties. The United Kingdom has three. They are not less democratic than Israel, and their governance abilities are far more efficient. The decision to raise the entry threshold to the Knesset to 4% is correct and will contribute to a stronger, better- functioning Israeli democracy.
The writer is a professor of politics and director of the Middle East Study Group at The University of Hull.