There are two basic political rights without which a system of government cannot be called democratic: the right to vote, by which the people choose their government, and the right to free expression, without which there can be no meaningful choice at the ballot.
In Israel, the first of these rights was recently diminished and the second is under assault.
In March, the Knesset approved the “governability” law, which allegedly aims to stabilize government coalitions by, among other things, raising the electoral threshold from two to 3.25 percent. An increase of 1.25% may seem like a minor adjustment, but the higher threshold will narrow choices on election day by far more than 1.25%.
Faced with the higher threshold, small parties will be deterred from competing, as will new parties, especially if they are not led by an already rich and famous personality. Even if new and small parties brave the ballot, for the most part they will not constitute a practical choice for an informed citizen who knows that a vote for these parties will effectively be canceled if the party fails to meet the threshold.
The citizen, who has just one national vote to cast every four years or so, is thus left with little choice but to vote for the same old party and the Knesset Members it presents (whom the average citizen had no say in selecting).
This constriction of electoral choice appears to be the true goal of the new threshold.
While it was argued that small parties threaten government stability, no government in the past 22 years fell due to the defection of a small party.
(Even the unruly government of Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister did not collapse as a result of a small party leaving the coalition).
It is therefore difficult to imagine that coalition stability was the true rationale behind the increase in the threshold.
If the bill is examined by asking who benefits, however, a more relevant and coherent rationale emerges. Indeed, every party which supported the raise has something to gain by restricting small and new parties since such parties earn votes that would otherwise go to them.
In a single stroke, the parties that supported the governability law thus cast themselves as capable reformers strengthening Israeli government and at the same time, barred their competition.
Now the Knesset is considering another bill which would restrict political competition. This measure, introduced only a few days after the Knesset voted to raise the threshold, would bar free daily print newspapers (in fact only one) in order to protect the viability of... daily print newspapers.
MK Eitan Cabel (Labor), the bill’s author, has argued that such a move is necessary because free daily newspapers undercut competing non-free newspapers and are thereby causing the demise of the print newspaper business. The bill’s explanatory notes likewise claim that a “main reason” for the “crisis in print journalism” is the fact that “some newspapers are distributed for free.”
This logic is obviously preposterous. Print media is in decline everywhere because the same information found in print is available to readers online – on their personal and office computers, smart phones and tablets, usually for free. Free newspapers may be the only way that print newspapers can survive in the digital age.
Free newspapers also serve an important function which the government should encourage: they benefit the consumer by reducing the cost of all newspapers and make information more accessible to the public, especially to those with limited Internet access.
As with the governability law, the true rationale of the proposed law can be found by asking who benefits from it. Since the bill’s clauses are tailored to restrict, if not eliminate completely, a particular newspaper, Israel Hayom, the free daily known for supporting Prime Minister Netanyahu, the answer is just about every other politician and print daily newspaper, primarily Israel Hayom’s primary competitor Yediot Aharonot.
The bill therefore enjoys support from Knesset Members from a variety of parties: Labor, Yesh Atid, Meretz and Hatnua as well as Shas, Yisrael Beytenu and Bayit Yehudi. All of these parties stand to benefit if the newspaper supporting a political competitor, the prime minister, is removed.
If the bill passes, however, Netanyahu and Israel Hayom won’t be the only losers. The biggest loser will be the average citizen whose right to read the publication of his choice will be undeniable infringed.
Despite the variety of support the bill enjoys, it will be difficult for a bill to pass against the will of the prime minister, who has already publicly criticized the proposal as being in the service of Yediot Aharonot.
During the term of the previous Knesset, prior bills which targeted Israel Hayom and which were opposed by the Prime Minister’s Office were not approved.
No matter the fate of this latest anti-Israel Hayom bill, with the public’s representatives in the Knesset unabashedly attempting to curb the competition by circumscribing who citizens vote for and what they read, a dark side of Israel’s political system is on display.
The author is an attorney and a Likud Central Committee member.