A double-edged sword

Lowering the electoral threshold increases the number of right-wing parties in the Knesset, but does little to increase the number of right-wing seats.

sraeli lawmakers attend a vote on a bill at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem February 6, 2017 (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
sraeli lawmakers attend a vote on a bill at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem February 6, 2017
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to lower the electoral threshold back to 2% are based on bad math. It would ultimately harm his coalition just as much as it would help it.
There’s a rumor going around that Eli Yishai’s misadventure in the last election took away three seats from the right-wing bloc, and that his Yachad Party’s failure to cross the threshold made Netanyahu’s coalition- building efforts more difficult than they needed to be.
There’s another rumor going around that Shas and Yisrael Beytenu are in danger of falling below the electoral threshold in the next election, and that each of these might cost the Right bloc another four seats.
On the basis of these rumors, Netanyahu’s office has confirmed that he is thinking of lowering the electoral threshold to ensure that all three of these parties make it into the Knesset next time around.
Unfortunately, these rumors are only partly true – and like most rumors, the part that’s false changes everything.
The missing piece? The limited number of Knesset seats. When a party doesn’t cross the threshold, its seats don’t just vanish. They’re distributed more or less randomly among the parties that made it into the Knesset. Some of these parties will be its ideological allies – which means that the number of seats it lost isn’t quite as much as it seems at first glance.
Let’s use Yachad as an example.
Scenario 1: This morning I found behind my couch a box containing 12,089 valid Yachad ballots, just enough to get it across the threshold. If I bring the box to the Supreme Court this afternoon, will it increase the size of the Right bloc by four seats? The answer is no. Yachad’s four seats aren’t simply added to the Knesset; they have to be taken away from other parties first. In this case, two of those parties are the left-ofcenter Zionist Union and Yesh Atid – but the other two are the right-ofcenter Likud and Kulanu.
So when Yachad failed to cross the threshold, only two of its seats were lost by the Right bloc and went to left-wing parties. The other two seats merely moved from one right-wing party to another.
Worse, Netanyahu’s initial coalition of six parties totaled the bare minimum of 61 seats and was cobbled together only two hours before the deadline. If you took away one seat each from the Likud and Kulanu, then after all of those efforts he still would have had only 59. Would it really have been worth this extra complication, to negotiate with yet another party, just to get a coalition of 63 instead of 61?
Scenario 2: Instead of adding votes to Yachad, let’s look at what would have happened if the threshold really had been 2% in the last election. (Voting behavior would obviously be different in any theoretical scenario, but I won’t try and predict exactly how. After all, Israeli pollsters have difficulty enough predicting voting behavior in reality.) With a lower threshold, Yachad would indeed have entered the Knesset with three seats. But those three seats come at the expense of the Zionist Union, the Likud, and Kulanu. This is worse than the previous scenario.
With a lower threshold, the right-wing bloc would have had only one extra seat (the seat Yachad took away from the Zionist Union). But Yachad still takes two seats away from the other parties in Netanyahu’s coalition. So, just like in the previous scenario, Netanyahu would only have been able to reach 59 seats without Yachad – and adding Yachad would have helped him get a mere 62. Is it really worth it, negotiating with seven different parties instead of six, just to get one extra seat?
Scenario 3: Now let’s look at the next election. It’s obviously impossible to predict what will happen this far into the future, so for simplicity’s sake we’ll again take the results of the last one. But we’ll let the three parties currently in danger (Yisrael Beytenu, Shas and Meretz) drop below the current 3.25% threshold. How would Netanyahu’s coalition-building be different? Well, in this scenario the Likud gets 35 seats, Bayit Yehudi gets 10, Kulanu gets 11, and UTJ gets seven, for a total of 63 seats. Not bad for a mere four parties. Even better: if any of these parties get uppity, Netanyahu can threaten to replace them with his former partner in Yesh Atid, which would have 13 seats.
But with a 2% threshold? The Likud, Bayit Yehudi, Kulanu and UTJ combine to get a mere 56 seats.
To get to the magic number 61, Netanyahu would need to kowtow to the demands of two additional parties, selected from among Shas, Yisrael Beytenu and Yachad.
You can run any number of scenarios with different vote counts, but they all ultimately show the same thing: lowering the threshold increases the number of right-wing parties entering the Knesset, but does little to increase the number of right-wing seats. The problem isn’t the threshold.
So if the problem isn’t the threshold, what is the problem? Well, if you’re the head of a right-wing party in danger, there are two very simple methods of ensuring that all of your seats go to a fellow rightwing party: by running together on the same list, or by not running at all and trusting your voters to choose a different right-wing party instead.
Factionalization is the real problem facing the Right. If the Tkuma Party splits off of Bayit Yehudi, or if Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut Party crosses the threshold, that won’t change the total number of votes (or seats) the Right bloc receives. All it will do is shift votes from one rightwing party to another and make coalition-building that much more difficult.
Lowering the threshold only encourages this behavior, removing two disincentives against factionalization.
A party in danger prefers to unite with other parties rather than run alone (both Baruch Marzel and Tzipi Livni did this in the last election). Futhermore, voters tend to abandon a party if it drops too low in the polls; if they fear their vote will be wasted, they often switch to another party of a similar ideology. That’s no less true for Yisrael Beytenu and Shas than it is for Tkuma and Zehut. The combination of these two factors would only increase the strength of the Likud and its remaining allies for each party that disappears; the loss of these parties ultimately poses no danger to the overall size of the bloc.
Ultimately, if a party is in danger of being eliminated from the Knesset, it is not in Netanyahu’s best interests to change the electoral system to save it. He should instead be celebrating its demise. The Likud will get a share of the spoils, and will reap the benefits of easier coalition building as well.
The author is a technical writer in Jerusalem, who will tell anybody who listens that it’s technically possible for a party to enter the Knesset with only three seats.