Knesset votes to dissolve itself 370.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
MK Muhammad Barakei (Hadash) started it. Opposition lawmakers from the Arab
parties, from United Torah Judaism, from Meretz and from Labor followed
Barakei’s lead. On the Knesset’s podium, they used the speaking time allotted to
them to stand in silent protest against legislation that seeks to raise the
minimum percentage needed to enter the Knesset from 2 percent of the total vote
The opposition MKs’ message on Wednesday night was clear: Raising
the electoral threshold would silence the smaller parties – particularly the
Arab parties. It was a unique moment of unity that brought together the Belz
Hassid MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism) and the homosexual MK Nitzan
Horowitz (Meretz) to defend the political rights of the Arab minority. The
feeling of solidarity was so strong among the opposition members that Meretz
chairwoman Zehava Gal-On was driven to tears.
But is the raising of the
electoral threshold really worth crying over? Since its founding, Israel’s
political stability has been undermined by an extreme proportional
representation system. One of its main features is a remarkably low threshold
for election to the Knesset. Among Western nations with proportional
representation systems, few permit parties representing such as small percentage
of the population to receive seats in the parliament. In fact, only the
Netherlands seems to have a threshold lower than Israel’s.
proportional representation systems do not have an illustrious track record. The
Weimar Republic had such a system.
In Israel the low threshold tends to
encourage the creation of short-lived parties with narrow or radical
Kach or the Pensioners Party come to mind. It also encourages
fractiousness and the splintering of smaller factions from larger ones over
Government coalitions that are cobbled together
inevitably become a patchwork of diverse factions. And these governments are
weakened by chronic division and instability. In many cases, a single party –
often a religious one – can bring down a government by abandoning the coalition,
giving the party inordinate leverage.
Over the past few decades the sizes
of the two largest parties – traditionally Labor and the Likud – have steadily
decreased due to the creation of short-lived centrist parties.
1996, the two largest parties together consistently held more than 70 Knesset
seats. Since 1999, they have garnered fewer than half the 120
Raising the threshold is one step – among others such as
institution of a first-past-the-post system with regional representation – that
would encourage parties with similar agendas to merge. Ideally, two large
parties – one left-wing and one right-wing – that represent the two mainstream
positions on cardinal issues such as security and socioeconomics should garner
the vast majority of the votes.
Undoubtedly, the proposed change will
hurt the small Arab parties – Hadash, Balad and United Arab
But clearly the intent of the lawmakers who support the
reform is not to discriminate against the Arab parties.
Kadima would not have made it into the Knesset under the 4% rule either.) There
might be validity to the Israel Democracy Institute’s claim that the threshold
should have been raised incrementally to give smaller parties time to get used
to the change. Still, the Arab factions have ample time to form a unified list
that will easily pass the threshold. These are parties that represent a fifth of
Ideally, our political culture will change to the point
where it will be possible to incorporate haredi and Arab politicians into the
largest political parties on the Right and on the Left and there will be no need
for parties with narrow agendas that represent specific sectors of
The beginnings of such a change are apparent in Yesh Atid, which
has managed to incorporate a diverse list of parliamentarians – haredi (Dov
Lipman), religious Zionist (Shai Piron) and secular.
Haredi and Arab MKs
working within a large political party – the Likud, Labor or some other – would
represent the interests of their constituents much better, particularly if the
party to which they belong is a member of the government
Raising the electoral threshold – combined with other reforms
in our electoral system – encourages precisely such a change. It should elicit
hope, not tears.