Democracy and the qualifying threshold in Israeli elections - opinion

The purpose of qualifying thresholds is to ensure that small splinter parties cannot be elected, and thus governability is enhanced.

 Opposition head and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu checking his phone at the Knesset plenum, October 27, 2021 (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Opposition head and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu checking his phone at the Knesset plenum, October 27, 2021
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The other day, an acquaintance of mine, a Likud member, mocked the alleged hypocrisy of the Center/Left when it warns against the danger to democracy posed by the right-wing religious bloc. “Three of the components of your bloc – Yesh Atid, the National Unity Party and Yisrael Beytenu – do not hold primaries,” he said, “so how can you claim to defend democracy?”

I shot back: “The two haredi lists in your bloc do not hold primaries either, and woman are barred from running in them. In addition, Otzma Yehudit does not hold primaries either.” I added that indeed, the Likud holds primaries, but its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, intervenes in the make-up of the list, so that the role of democracy in the process is somewhat lopsided.

But the question of whether parties hold democratic primaries to put their lists together is less important, in my opinion, than what they will do if and when they join the new government after the elections. Furthermore, the issue of intervention by the contenders for the premiership, from both sides of the political spectrum, in the party make-up of the lists in their respective blocs, to ensure that they all pass the qualifying threshold, is also of importance from a democratic perspective.

Some parliamentary democracies apply qualifying thresholds to their election systems. What this means is that if a list receives less than a certain percentage of the valid votes, it will not be elected to the parliament, and all the votes it received are lost. The purpose of qualifying thresholds is to ensure that small splinter parties cannot be elected, and thus governability is enhanced. In West Germany after World War II, a 5% qualifying threshold was introduced to prevent the communists and/or neo-Nazis from being elected, without actually prohibiting their existence.

From 1951 to 1992, Israel had a 1% qualifying threshold. This was increased to 1.5% in 1992, to 2% in 2004, and finally to 3.25% in 2014 for the elections to the 20th Knesset. Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman was responsible for this increase (he originally wanted the threshold to be raised to 4%) as part of a broader initiative to improve governability in Israel.

 PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid and Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett exchange their seats at the government table in the Knesset plenum last month, after the vote to disperse parliament, as Lapid was becoming prime minister and Bennett taking the title of alternate prime minister. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid and Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett exchange their seats at the government table in the Knesset plenum last month, after the vote to disperse parliament, as Lapid was becoming prime minister and Bennett taking the title of alternate prime minister. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

At the time, it was argued that another of Liberman’s goals was to weaken the Arab representation in the Knesset, though the exact opposite took place since the four Arab parties decided to run together in a single list in the 2015 elections, and increased their joint representation from 11 to 13 seats. 

Increases in the qualifying threshold

THE FIRST increase in the qualifying threshold in 1992 was one of the contributors to Yitzhak Rabin’s electoral victory in the elections to the 13th Knesset – since numerous small right-wing lists failed to pass the threshold. 

However, the highest number of valid votes that were lost because of the qualifying threshold was in the elections to the 21st Knesset (April 2019), when 355,016 votes were lost – most of them right-wing votes, despite efforts by Netanyahu to get all the right-wing parties to the right of the Likud – including Itamar Ben-Gvir’s extremist Otzma Yehudit – to run together. In this endeavor, he was only partially successful, even though he went as far as to reserve the 28th slot in the Likud list for a member of Bayit Yehudi, who would join its parliamentary group after the elections.

Before the elections to the 24th Knesset, Netanyahu finally managed to convince Bezalel Smotrich from Ha’ihud Haleumi-Tkuma, to run together with Ben-Gvir (and another splinter right-wing party called Noam) in a joint list that was named Religious Zionism.

As an opposition MK in the 24th Knesset, Ben-Gvir’s personal popularity rose to such an extent that recent opinion polls show him surpassing Smotrich, and receiving as many as eight to nine seats if he were to run on his own, while Smotrich fails, in some polls, to pass the qualifying threshold. As a result, Ben-Gvir demanded to receive an equal number of slots in the joint list in the approaching elections. When Smotrich declined, Ben-Gvir announced that he would run independently, and then Netanyahu intervened to “convince” the two to run together.

We do not know what exactly was promised to the two, whom Netanyahu met separately, but it was reported by the media that Netanyahu had assured Ben-Gvir that he would be included in the government he hopes to form after the elections. This, despite the fact that before the elections to the 24th Knesset, Netanyahu had refused to give such a promise, and that Ben-Gvir has recently advocated the deportation of Israeli citizens who, in his view, are enemies of the state (mostly Arabs, but also Jews such as MK Ofer Kasif from the Joint List, and Neturei Karta), and to introduce the electric chair for terrorists.

It is still not clear whether Netanyahu will also intervene in the case of the two branches of the Torah Judaism joint list – Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael – considered another basic component of Netanyahu’s “natural” coalition. The main dispute between the two involves the relative power of each in the joint list, and the joint parliamentary group. 

Added to this is an ideological dispute between the two, based on the reported decision of the Belz Hassidim (the second largest component of Agudat Yisrael) to reach an agreement with the Education Ministry about receiving increased financial backing from the state for its primary schools for boys, in return for providing their pupils with a basic non-religious curriculum. Degel Hatorah – the ultra-Orthodox, non-hassidic component of the list – considers this to be sacrilegious.​It is clear that unless the two pa​​rties run on a single list, one or both of them are liable not to pass the qualifying threshold (polls show that if they will run together, they will get seven seats). There are differences of opinion on whether it is desirable for Netanyahu to get involved in these disputes, since such issues are the business of the two hare​​di parties’ religious leaders. Within the next 10 days we shall know what will be decided – with or without Netanyahu’s intervention.

INCIDENTALLY, Netanyahu is not the only political leader intervening in the decisions of other parties in an effort to strengthen his political bloc in the coming elections. It has been reported that Prime Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) is also pressuring Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, who refuses to consider running together in a single list with Meretz, despite opinion polls suggesting that either, or both parties, might fail to pass the qualifying threshold. 

In this case, Netanyahu will certainly manage to muster the 61 Knesset seats he requires to form a government. It has been suggested that Lapid is willing to go quite far to convince Michaeli to change her mind – including reserving a slot for a member of the Labor Party in the Yesh Atid list. 

I hope Michaeli will reject any offer of this undemocratic nature, should one be made.

The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher, and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book is Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job.