In a paradoxical fashion, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid has just saved Arye Deri’s political career, and strengthened a Shas that was in danger of disintegration.
The governance law that was passed a few weeks ago was supported by citizens who felt that electoral reform was badly needed in Israel. The current rules give too much power to sectoral parties, who extort their way into more power than their proportional representation justifies during coalition negotiations.
A classic example of such a phenomenon is the ultra-Orthodox parties that have been in almost every coalition in the last 25 years, and have managed to bring significant funds and influence to their voters – even at the expense of the majority of the citizens of Israel. The new law was supposed to change this reality by making the election threshold higher (3.25 percent), thus eliminating smaller parties. The claim was that without smaller parties, there would be less blackmail and government would also be more stable.
However, a closer look at the law shows that the true winners are actually those whom the law was meant to weaken.
Let us look at the various junctions at which this new threshold will affect Israeli politics, in order to see who the winners and losers really are.
Rabbi Haim Amsalem: Loser
Amsalem, the leader of the Am Shalem movement, is a former MK from Shas, who was booted out of the party for nonconformism and decided to start his own movement to try and influence the haredi lifestyle.
In the last elections, Am Shalem missed the threshold by very little, and Amsalem has been debating what to do with his political future ever since.
Last week, Amsalem announced that he had officially joined the Likud Party.
The stated reason for this decision: the new governance law.
Amsalem knew that he had no chance of passing the new threshold.
Now, let us think about this: Lapid is one of the loudest advocates for a change in the lifestyle and politics of the haredim.
One of the greatest hopes for this change to actually happen was through Amsalem, a person who comes from inside this society and wants to reform it.
Amsalem’s dream of building a political party to enable this reform has been shattered by Lapid’s law. He must now run in the Likud primaries, a party which is already very crowded and where it is incredibly hard to run in the primaries.
By pushing the governance law, in this instance Lapid chose politics over policy, hurting the best chance Israel had at slowly reforming haredi society.
Naftali Bennett: Winner
Tekuma rabbis and Yoni Chetboun: Losers
One of the greatest winners from the passing of this law is Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett.
Bayit Yehudi is made up of two parties that had yearned to unite for decades, yet never managed to get to that unity: the National Religious Party and Tekuma.
Finally, before the last elections, the parties united, but ever since, it has become clear that the current party is incredibly heterogeneous and is hard to govern. On almost every issue, there are two camps that form: Bennett’s camp, and the Tekuma camp. It should be noted that individuals such as Chetboun, who were not originally from Tekuma, have also joined the Tekuma camp.
With the passing of the new law, Tekuma has almost no chance of passing the threshold on its own. Bennett is today probably the only religious-Zionist who is able to bring enough votes to pass this threshold. While the Tekuma camp might still want to threaten separation, everyone knows that this threat is empty.
No one will vote for a party that cannot pass the threshold, and therefore, even if they leave the party, they won’t be taking any voters with them.
While I am no fan of the Tekuma faction within the party, one must wonder whether this is an ideal situation. After all, if voters really do not identify with Bayit Yehudi and rather want to vote for another party that has existed in some form for decades, are they not entitled to that choice? Also, the claim that the new law adds governance is now put to question.
When forming a coalition, a prime minister needs choice. When Tekuma and Bayit Yehudi were separate, a prime minister who wanted a religious-Zionist voice in his government could choose between them. Since there was competition between them, their demands were also more reasonable, and none of them could extort the prime minister.
Today, the only religious-Zionist party will be Bayit Yehudi. This does not make it easier to build a coalition – but much harder.
Arye Deri: Winner
Eli Yishai: Loser
Shas has been in crisis ever since Deri decided to reenter politics. His reentry created strong tensions between Yishai’s camp and his own camp, as Yishai found it hard to give up the party’s leadership.
This led to strong tensions that were ready to explode at any time, with Yishai threatening to leave Shas and create his own party.
The new law means this will not happen.
Yishai might have been electable under the old threshold, but it is unlikely he will pass the new one. This means he has little choice other than to stay in Shas – thus strengthening Deri tremendously, and weakening his strongest opponent.
If Yishai had in fact created his own party, we would have had two “smaller” Shas parties, each with its own leader and flavor. Yishai is more right-wing and nationalist; Deri paints himself as a social justice activist.
If Yishai’s splinter party had become a reality, when forming a coalition, the prime minister would not have had a big bloc of 12 MKs that he would be forced to take, and could therefore extort him.
Rather, he could have chosen between the two smaller Shas parties, or accepted both of them. However, even if he had taken both, their price for joining the coalition would have been much more reasonable, since they would be smaller and therefore replaceable.
Lapid ran a campaign that made him look like the complete opposite of Deri.
His voters felt that by opting for him, they would weaken Deri – who is known for his corrupt past, and for being a symbol of the political extortion that the new governance law is meant to prevent.
Lapid not only did not deliver, he did the exact opposite. By pushing this law forward, he gave Deri, who many thought was on political life-support after the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a new life. He removed Deri’s greatest threat, strengthened him, and made him the undisputed leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox community.
Politics vs Policy
The governance law is nothing more than a political tool.
For decades, Israelis have asked for electoral reform, and never got it. The window of opportunity created by a smaller coalition made up of medium- sized parties which all wanted electoral reform made this possible.
However, instead of doing something significant, the makers of the law just made small cosmetic changes. Not only that, looking deeper into the consequences of these changes, we see they will only deepen the problems that the law was meant to solve.
Lapid’s voters, who hoped he would finally balance the power of the sectoral parties in Israeli politics, should really start looking for a new political home.
The writer is an attorney who graduated from McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s honors graduate program in public policy.