Liberman’s bad law

The high election threshold will constitute a significant barrier and will likely leave the Knesset closed to new forces.

Arabs voting (photo credit: Courtesy)
Arabs voting
(photo credit: Courtesy)
IN MID-MARCH Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman won a battle in which Israeli society was the big loser. But make no mistake the struggle is far from over.
Liberman managed to press the disparate members of the governing coalition into supporting a sharp rise in the minimum threshold for parliamentary representation – a move more than 90 of the 120 members of the Knesset would have opposed in a free vote.
Raising the threshold from two percent to 3.25 percent means that parties will have to win a minimum of four seats for representation in the next Knesset. Several small parties currently in the Knesset, including all the Arab-oriented parties, might not make it next time round, with all that that implies for the representative nature of Israeli democracy.
Liberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, managed to get the new legislation passed through backroom wheeling and dealing with other mid-size coalition parties, Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi. But with so many Knesset members actually opposed to the end result, there is no need to take it lying down. The fight to reduce the threshold and to overturn the other anti- democratic “governability” provisions – for example, the restriction of no-confidence motions – will go on.
Indeed, the opposition is already working on a new counter-initiative and we will look for an opportune political moment to make it law, superseding the current antidemocratic legislation.
Raising the threshold has two main and mischievous goals: first, to deepen the divide between Jews and Arabs in Israeli politics, and second, to erect high walls around the Knesset and turn it into an exclusive political club, closed to the forces of social change.
Of course, the official explanations are different and refer mainly to the need to enhance governability and stability – in other words to strengthen the power of the executive. But none of this stands up to even the most elementary scrutiny. Indeed, it’s been a long time since such a damaging law with such a feeble rationale has been passed.
To start with, there is no “governability” problem in Israel – only a problem of leadership. If anything, there is a problem of too much unchecked power in executive hands. Prime ministers who knew where they wanted to go led Israel into unnecessary wars and almost singlehandedly imposed policies they believed were right, like the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.
As for stability, as opposed to conventional wisdom, the Israeli political system is relatively stable, given the country’s weighty problems and deep social fissures. Elections once every three years are pretty much the norm in parliamentary democracies. And when elections are held early in Israel, it is inevitably the result of clashes in or between the large and mid-sized parties, not because of the small ones.
Moreover, the argument that removal of the small parties from the Knesset would make for more stable government is patently false. Disappearance of the small parties would almost certainly strengthen the mid-sized parties, and according to cutting-edge research, this could actually undermine stability. The current Netanyahu government is a prime example of a coalition totally dependent for its survival on each of its mid-sized constituent parties. It would have been far more stable had the prime minister been able to maneuver among a number of small parties, none of which could on their own bring the government down.
The argument that small parties in a coalition could hold the government to ransom is particularly difficult to make after this latest supreme demonstration of political extortion by three mid-sized parties in the government – each dragooning the others into supporting its pet law, when none of the three laws – the draft law, the referendum law and the “governability” law – would have had a Knesset majority on its own.
MOREOVER, IT is not the small parties who are responsible for some of the less savory aspects of the Israeli system. For example, it was not the small parties who initiated the corrupt system of primaries for electing Knesset candidates; nor do they have all-powerful leaders, like Liberman in Yisrael Beytenu or Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, who peremptorily appoint them. On the contrary, the small parties add a refreshing ideological dimension to Israeli politics. They have also contributed several outstanding parliamentarians – for example, Tewfiq Toubi and Tamar Gojansky of Hadash and former Meretz leader Haim Oron.
The new, relatively high election threshold will constitute a significant barrier and will likely leave the Knesset closed to new forces lacking big money support. This will reinforce the plutocratic trends already evident in the Israeli system. The historical record also shows that when the threshold is raised, the number of wasted votes rises significantly. In other words, the Knesset will not only be less representative, it will also be less legitimate. Public confidence in the system could be further eroded, and reluctance to participate in the political process could intensify.
Raising the threshold could also distort popular will. In Turkey, for example, it was the high threshold that led to the rise of the Islamists, because several secular parties fell by the wayside, the votes they received wasted. Given the higher electoral threshold, something similar could happen in Israel.
Especially grave is the damage raising the threshold will do to Israel’s Arab population. All the Arab-oriented parties will have to unite or face the prospect of failing to pass the threshold. In other words, raising the threshold will impose on the Arabs, some 20 percent of the population, an impossible choice between lack of representation in the Knesset or a forced and unnatural political alliance between Islamists, secular socialists and free-market liberal nationalists. This constitutes a severe curtailing of the Arabs’ right to choose, just as Israeli Jews do, between different ideological and political options.
It is too early to predict what the implications of raising the threshold will be and what the political map the day after the next election will look like. What is already clear is that all the political actors who oppose the move and the thinking behind it, who don’t want to see a forced separation between Jews and Arabs in Israeli politics and who want to see real social and political change, not an exclusive club for government and capital, face a mammoth task.
Liberman’s achievement in changing the rules of the game poses a huge challenge.
We must find a way to stave off this attack on fundamental democratic rights. We need to unify the forces of social justice and peace, Jews and Arabs, and to create a wide and powerful front for genuine social change.
Knesset Member Dov Khenin, a lawyer with a PhD in political science, is one of four delegates representing the Hadash- Communist party. In the last election in January 2013, Hadash won 2.99 percent of the popular vote, and had the threshold been raised then, it would not have entered the Knesset.