Israeli-Arab man casts his vote elections voting 370 (R).
(photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
On Wednesday the Knesset passed the first reading of a governance bill laid on
its table by Yisrael Beytenu. The opposition was up in arms regarding several
articles in the bill which are allegedly anti-democratic. One of these provides
for raising the qualifying threshold in Knesset elections from the current 2
percent to 4%.
The qualifying threshold is the percentage of valid votes
which a list running in parliamentary elections must receive in order to be
represented in the parliament – in a system of proportional
Thus, theoretically, a party running in Knesset
elections, which received 1% of valid votes ought to receive one seat in the
newly elected Knesset, but because the qualifying threshold is currently 2%, it
will be granted none.
The idea of a qualifying threshold is used in
various countries to keep down the number of tiny parliamentary groups, and to
keep undesirable lists out, even if they are not disqualified by law.
Germany there is a 5% qualifying threshold which applies to parties running in
elections to the Bundestag on the federal level, originally introduced in West
Germany as one of the means to keep the Communist Party and potential neo-Nazi
parties out of the Bundestag.
In Israel, the qualifying threshold,
originally 1%, was raised to 1.5% in advance of the elections to the 13th
Knesset in 1992, and to 2% in 2004.
The motivation for proposing to raise
the qualifying threshold has been the desire to reduce the large number of
parliamentary groups in the Knesset, regarded by many as one of the causes of
Israel’s relatively unstable system of government, and the excessive power held
by splinter parties in situations where neither of the two political blocs
enjoyed a clear majority in the Knesset. Occasionally, proposals to raise the
threshold were designed to keep particular parties out of the
Over the years the idea of raising the qualifying threshold to
4% or even 5% was initiated by different parties, usually the ultra-Orthodox
parties, which finally led the proposers to abandon their efforts.
following the establishment of a national unity government in 1984, a committee
made up of representatives of the Labor alignment and the Likud and chaired by
the late Gad Yaacobi, was appointed to propose reforms in Israel's electoral
system, and one of its agreed proposals was to raise the qualifying threshold to
The move was finally thwarted by the Likud central committee as a
result of pressure from Agudat Yisrael which viewed the move as an attempt to
push the haredim out of the Knesset.
What is disturbing about the current
initiative, which will probably turn into law in the Knesset’s winter session
after the summer recess, is the fact that over the years Yisrael Beytenu has not
concealed its desire to disqualify at least some of the Arab parties and MKs.
There are those who suspect that even though the formal explanation of the
current proposal to raise the qualifying threshold is to lead to a reduction in
the number of parliamentary groups in the Knesset – by encouraging small parties
to run in a single list – the real intention is to reduce Arab
In a television interview with Channel 10 on Saturday,
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman openly stated that he would be delighted
if Ahmed Tibi – one of the Arab MKs who is well integrated into Israel's
parliamentary life – would emigrate from the country.
While it might
appear perfectly logical that the Israeli Arabs should all run in a single Arab
list, the truth is that, as pointed out by MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad), ethnicity
on its own is not a sufficient basis for running together in elections, adding
that personally he has very little, if anything in common with the Communist
ideology of Hadash, or the Islamic elements in United Arab List-
Though I personally believe that it is in our interest to avoid
alienating Israel’s Arab citizens by devising all sorts of direct and indirect
methods to reduce their power and influence, I would nevertheless suggest the
Arab politicians use the new challenge in order to start putting their own house
Today, Arabs citizens of Israel constitute 22% of the total
population. This means that in electoral terms they could potentially have 24
The reason there are currently only 11 Arab MKs is that
the voting-rate is much lower in the Arab sector than in the Jewish sector, and
that many Arabs vote for “Jewish” parties (primarily, but not only, Labor and
Short of running on a single list without giving up their
separate party structures, maintaining a single parliamentary group throughout
the Knesset’s term, and then splitting up before new elections for the purpose
of party financing (as Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah have done for years), if
the Arab parties would simply act to increase the voting rate of the Arab
population, they could all easily pass the 4% qualifying threshold.
allowing the current situation of low-Arab-voting-rates to persist, these
parties are simply playing into the hands of certain right-wing forces that
refuse to contend with the demographic reality and believe that somehow Israel
can continue to be a democratic state while treating its Arab citizens like
Or worse, they believe that Israel can continue to thrive
while shedding important elements of its democratic system under the guise of
improved governability.The writer is a retired Knesset employee.