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(photo credit: Ori Porat)
For most Knesset members, last week's talk of electoral reform was an opportunity to show voters they are ready to revise the system of government ahead of the next election. But for the Knesset's Arab factions, the reforms could spell the end of their involvement in the political arena.
While nearly a dozen variations of a reform bill are on the Knesset table, nearly all call for raising the electoral threshold to at least five percent of the total vote.
For the three Arab parties - Rahat-Ta'al, Balad and Hadash - who hold four, three and three seats respectively in the 120-seat Knesset, a 5% threshold, which would require electing at least six MKs, would mean combining to form one party or risk losing all their seats.
"We have not combined and formed one list until now for good reason," said MK Ahmed Tibi (Rahat-Ta'al). "We don't have enough common ground with each other. Just because the election system changes doesn't mean we will suddenly combine for reasons of survival."
There have been Arab MKs since the Knesset was founded in 1949. In recent years, tensions between the Arab factions and the rest of the Knesset have grown. Last month, when Israel Beiteinu joined the coalition, the Arab factions staged a protest, calling the current government the "most racist in Israel's history."
"These new election laws will do nothing but hurt democracy by preventing us, who represent the minority, from taking part in government," said Tibi. "Maybe this is what [Israel Beiteinu chairman] Avigdor Lieberman is going for. I have reasons to think he would be very pleased to kick us out of government."
A spokeswoman for Lieberman denied that he supported electoral reform as a means to keep Arab MKs out of the Knesset.
Earlier this week, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz rejected a request by several Likud and Israel Beiteinu MKs, as well as attorney Ophir Miller, to remove Balad MKs from the Knesset because of their visit to Syria.
"There is a widespread feeling that they are trying to get rid of us in any way possible," said Tibi.
According to MK Michael Eitan (Likud), who studied electoral reform while he was Law and Constitution Committee chairman in the previous Knesset, the reforms are not aimed at any minority.
"It's not true that these laws will adversely affect one particular party," he said. "Maybe it will actually cause the Arab parties and Meretz to unite, forming one true Jewish-Arab Party. That would be a momentous step."
Meretz, which has five MKs, would also be in danger of losing its seats if the electoral threshold is raised. While its chairman, MK Yossi Beilin, stressed that he was in favor of electoral reform, he suggested that the threshold be raised to 2.5% rather than 5%.
"I think that 2.5% is adequate," Beilin said. "We are a small country with many different interests. Eliminating these interests would only damage our democracy."
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