The Knesset approval on Tuesday of a change in the electoral threshold, which changes the dynamics of the country’s democracy by requiring parties to garner 3.25 percent of the vote to enter the Knesset instead of 2 percent, was a long time coming.
Many will look to Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who included electoral reform as a central pillar of his political campaign, as the driver of the change, but the groundwork has been years in the making.
In 2003, billionaire philanthropist Izak Parviz Nazarian put down money to start an NGO called Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel, which has been pushing the agenda as a matter of good governance since.
The organization has conducted years of research on the electoral system, promoting an increase in the electoral threshold (among other things) as a means of making Israel’s political system more stable and efficient.
But who is this Nazarian, and why did he care so much about this issue? The fascinating tale originates in Iran, where Nazarian was born to a Jewish family 85 years ago.
“When I was in Iran, I always had a problems for being a Jew. The Muslims always had a war with us and called me ‘Dirty Jew,’ so this dirty Jew decided to leave work in Iran and go to Israel,” Nazarian told The Jerusalem Post in a interview in Tel Aviv.
After a stint in Italy, where he received training and transport to the Holy Land, the 18-yearold Nazarian joined the 7th Armored Brigade, where a mine soon injured him. In his Zionist fervor, he refused to leave the army, and was assigned to complete his service as a driver. His good humor and willingness to work helped him get a special gig as Golda Meir’s driver.
“I would get to the house of Golda, may she rest in peace, and she would come to the window and say, ‘Itzhak, come upstairs and drink a cup of coffee!’ I’d go up, Golda would give me a cup of coffee, and I would wait for her to get ready. That was the joy for me,” he said.
“Then when she became the foreign minister [in 1956], I didn’t want other drivers to take her. We talked about the life of Jews in Iran, and what happened when I was injured in the army. She really liked me, may she rest in peace.”
Bit by bit, his family came over from Iran.
“The Iranians would come from Iran, buy a truck, put everything on the truck, and drive to Israel through Turkey.
Then they would sell the truck and buy a house here. One of my friends, whose father did that, came to me and said, ‘Itzhak, my dad brought a Haber truck, and we can’t manage it, we don’t know enough people to work, I’m ready to sell it.”
Nazarian bought the truck and began a transport business, moving gravel and goods from place to place. Business was good, and he eventually came to own several trucks and manage a team of drivers.
In 1957, he decided to go back to Iran. “I wanted to go and help Jews and the rest of my family come to Israel, so they could settle here properly,” he said.
“He quickly understood that developing countries needed machinery for construction. At first he was importing machinery from England and Germany and Israel, but then realized he could build some of the machinery in Persia,” Nezarian’s daughter Dora Kadisha explains. Business, which took a turn toward building complex infrastructure projects for the government, boomed, and he and his family continued to visit Israel regularly.
When Dora fell in love with an Israeli man, the whole family came over to celebrate the engagement.
“Then we heard that they took all of our property,” said Nazarian. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 had begun, and his strong ties to the shah’s government were a death sentence.
“He heard on the radio on the way to the airport that they had killed the head of the Jewish community in Iran. His name was on the list, too. Were it not for the engagement, he would have been there,” Kadisha said.
To get a better handle on the situation in Iran, Nazarian headed to the United States, where he used the technical expertise from the infrastructure work to start making tools.
But his old business came back to him when he came across two academics trying to make trucking more efficient. The problem? They couldn’t keep track of all the trucks.
They worked on developing a technology called Omni- TRACS, which enabled twoway communication through satellite technology. The two academics, Irwin Jacobs and Andrew Viterbi, sold it through their start-up, which they decided to call Qualcomm.
That company went on to become one of the biggest chipmakers in the world, pulling in nearly $25 billion of profit in 2013. Some of its research centers are located in Israel.
With the fortune he amassed through business, Nazarian founded Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel. After his experiences living in Iran – witnessing the backlash to the shah’s corruption which helped fuel the revolution – in Israel and the United States, he was fascinated with how the political system’s structures affected the political outcomes.
“There are great things in Israel, but from a governance perspective, they tie the prime minister’s hands, throw him into the water and want him to swim to shore,” he said.
Kadisha, who heads the American friends of CECI, added: “I think our politicians are hard-working politicians and want to make change, but they are stuck in the bureaucracy of the political system.”
The four priorities the organization believes will help the government become more stable, functional and representative: 1) raising the electoral threshold, 2) reducing the number of government ministers, 3) adding a regional element to general elections, and 4) raising number of votes required to topple a government.
On Monday, the first two of those became law.