Raise the threshold

Israel does not need a two-party system like America, but rather strong, broad-based parties that can represent a diverse cross-section of the population.

September 20, 2018 08:41
3 minute read.
Yair Netanyahu observes his father Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casting a ballot in the

Yair Netanyahu observes his father Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casting a ballot in the 2015 elections.. (photo credit: REUTERS/SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/POOL)


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Of all the issues used in the Knesset as a political punching bag, raising and lowering the percentage threshold of each of the 120 seats is the most cynical.

No other issue has been so used and abused for political gain as this one. Let us take just the last two elections for examples, the 19th and 20th Knesset.

In the election of 2013, Yesh Atid became the dealmaker. That meant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have to form a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox parties, fierce political opponents of Yesh Atid.

It also meant that the coalition could pass an issue central to Yesh Atid’s platform: significantly raising that threshold percentage.

And so it happened. The 19th Knesset passed a law with great fanfare in March 2014, raising the threshold from 2% of the vote to 3.25%.

“The people of Israel need a strong and stable government and less fragments of parties,” Netanyahu said at the time, and we could not agree more.

But that was then and this is now. It won’t be long before a new election is announced, and that means carefully planning for it – previous statements be damned.

So on Sunday, Netanyahu told his coalition heads that he had changed his mind, and was asking them if they would cooperate on lowering the threshold a half-percentage point lower to 2.75%. Such a move would ensure parties gaining seats into the parliament with fewer votes, around 15,000.

This is not good for Israeli governance.

Having a large number of smaller parties is bad for the country, inevitably resulting in a coalition held hostage to the narrow demands of specific interests instead of focusing on the needs of the wider public.

Smaller parties with narrow interests means an unstable government led by a prime minister held prisoner to their whims and dictates.

Having fewer and larger parties, on the other hand, would create a government that can make decisions, “not busy performing maintenance chores on the coalition all of the time,” as Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman said ahead of the 2014 bill.

In Israel’s history, the electoral threshold rose in 1988 from 1% to 1.5%, to 2% in 2003, and to the current 3.25%. Every one of those votes was the right one – but the Knesset has not gone far enough. Not only must the threshold not be lowered – it should be raised.

It is understandable why Netanyahu wants to lower it: some of Likud’s satellite parties might not pass the threshold, which would make it harder for Netanyahu to build a government if he wins the next election.

In the last election in 2015, over 5.5% of votes cast went to parties that failed to cross the threshold. Lowering the threshold now by half a percent could enable factions to enter the Knesset with four seats, possibly three – and thus prevent right-wing votes from being wasted.

But then what? Another government paralyzed? Another government unable to pass a draft law for the benefit of the whole nation? How can any such government be expected to get anything done?

For Israel to be able to tackle big issues, it needs a government that is not dependent on small parties which extort for their special interests. The better solution is larger parties.

Israel does not need a two-party system like America, but rather strong, broad-based parties that can represent a diverse cross-section of the population: Ashkenazim, Sephardim, religious, National-Religious, secular, atheists, left-wingers and right-wingers.
Stop using the threshold as a political football tossed from party to party for the benefit of the few.

What happened in the 2015 election after the threshold was raised is an interesting lesson. Fearful of losing seats, the three Arab parties that were in the Knesset – Balad, Hadash and Ra’am-Ta’al – understood that alone they would not pass the threshold and decided to run together as the Joint List. They garnered 13 seats in total – two more than the 11 they collectively held after the 2013 election.

Blocs like these are good for democracy. Keep the threshold as it is and if anything, make it higher.

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