For Zion's Sake: Coming soon to Israel – unpopular government

Saar: "I will vote for the unpopular decision.”

Knesset 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
Knesset 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
"I will vote for the unpopular decision.” That was how Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar summed up his justification for voting in favor of the release of 104 convicted terrorists in the face of a public that opposed the decision by about 85 percent, as a poll at the time showed.
Sa’ar’s invocation of political courage, which mirrored Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s own argument in his open letter (“There is no need for prime ministers in order to make decisions that enjoy the support of public opinion”) was ironic.
Political courage is a lonely and often short-lived burden. He who carries it stands against not only the whims of the masses but also his colleagues, who follow the masses out of political necessity. The lonely, elected man of faith takes a moral stand and risks ending his political career.
If every politician did it, of course, it wouldn’t be that courageous.
Netanyahu and Sa’ar, however, were far from alone in their admittedly unpopular decision as the cabinet voted 13 to seven – almost a two-to-one margin – against an apparently ignorant and overly principled public.
Another vote held that same day in the Knesset Committee on the Constitution, Law and Justice added another level of irony to the claims of political courage.
Following the ministerial committee’s (i.e., the government’s) decision a month earlier, the Knesset committee voted to bring the “governability” bills to the Knesset plenum.
There are two versions of the bill, both sponsored by MKs (David Rotem, of Yisrael Beytenu, and Ronen Hoffman of Yesh Atid) who were appointed, not elected, to their party lists.
Whichever version of the bill is passed will see Israel’s electoral threshold raised from two percent to 4% percent, which would grant our abundance of politically courageous politicians even more protection from the public’s wrath.
Once the threshold is raised to 4%, no longer will voters, with their sole national vote which they get to cast once every three-to-four years, be able to punish those politicians and parties they feel betrayed or failed them, or that the public is just tired of. Nor would voters be able to explore new electoral possibilities in the form of start-up parties. Instead, they would be forced to choose from the existing, dwindling, pool of parties.
Beyond eliminating alternatives, on the other side of the equation, the electoral value of those forced out would be transferred to a few mid-size and large parties.
With a 2% threshold, a little over 7% of the eligible valid votes in the last election (268,795 votes out of 3,792,742) were effectively cancelled and redistributed to those parties who made the cut.
If the threshold is doubled, that number, using the last election results as a model, would climb to over 18% (696,688 votes).
And beyond those parties who didn’t earn 4% of the vote, there are those who hover just above the future threshold, earning between 4% and 5% (in the last election those were Meretz and Hatnua). They too would face extinction, which would come when they eventually dip below the threshold.
All in all, we would see about 28% of the public’s vote (or 1,058,258 votes in the last election) cancelled and redistributed, or otherwise manipulated – by artificially forcing mergers between various parties, forcing parties to drop out, or scaring voters away from smaller or new parties they would otherwise have voted for. In one way or another, that 28% of the vote will be redistributed to parties or politicians those voters otherwise did not want to vote for.
As politicians remain in office even further past their expiration date and as people grow more resentful at the lack of choice, the percentage of voters forced in some way to vote for people they oppose will grow.
This should not be confused with a district system, where one candidate wins and all the votes for the losers are often described as not counting. The votes are counted. And based on that count one candidate wins and the others lose. The winner still represents the whole district and still strives to please as many people as possible in the district.
In a proportional-party list system with a minimum threshold, the votes for a party which does not make the cut are actually given over to competitors, increasing their share of the legislature.
When the new, higher threshold is set and the new political framework takes root, even party leaders will have little need to justify their votes to the public – whether by spinning their defiance of the public will as bravery or by seeking public support for their decision – because what the public thinks will matter a whole lot less.
In other words, instead of politicians knocking on voter’s doors, they can wait until election day, when voters will be forced to come to them.
As the governability bill clashes with Basic Law: The Knesset’s requirement that elections be equal and proportional, the bill needs to be approved by an absolute majority – 61 MKs.
In the preliminary reading of the law in early July, it passed with 60 votes. In its “first reading,” the bill was approved with 64 MKs voting in favor of the clause raising the minimum threshold.
So in the near future, unless a number of MKs reverse their positions, expect a new form of “democratic” government in Israel: the unpopular elected government.
The author is an attorney, a Likud Central Committee member, and was a candidate on the Likud-Beytenu list for the 19th Knesset.