Think About It: Raising the qualifying threshold

The reason there are only 11 Arab MKs is that the voting-rate is much lower in the Arab sector.

Israeli-Arab man casts his vote elections voting 370 (R) (photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
Israeli-Arab man casts his vote elections voting 370 (R)
(photo credit: Ammar Awad / Reuters)
On Wednesday the Knesset passed the first reading of a governance bill laid on its table by Yisrael Beytenu. The opposition was up in arms regarding several articles in the bill which are allegedly anti-democratic. One of these provides for raising the qualifying threshold in Knesset elections from the current 2 percent to 4%.
The qualifying threshold is the percentage of valid votes which a list running in parliamentary elections must receive in order to be represented in the parliament – in a system of proportional representation.
Thus, theoretically, a party running in Knesset elections, which received 1% of valid votes ought to receive one seat in the newly elected Knesset, but because the qualifying threshold is currently 2%, it will be granted none.
The idea of a qualifying threshold is used in various countries to keep down the number of tiny parliamentary groups, and to keep undesirable lists out, even if they are not disqualified by law.
In Germany there is a 5% qualifying threshold which applies to parties running in elections to the Bundestag on the federal level, originally introduced in West Germany as one of the means to keep the Communist Party and potential neo-Nazi parties out of the Bundestag.
In Israel, the qualifying threshold, originally 1%, was raised to 1.5% in advance of the elections to the 13th Knesset in 1992, and to 2% in 2004.
The motivation for proposing to raise the qualifying threshold has been the desire to reduce the large number of parliamentary groups in the Knesset, regarded by many as one of the causes of Israel’s relatively unstable system of government, and the excessive power held by splinter parties in situations where neither of the two political blocs enjoyed a clear majority in the Knesset. Occasionally, proposals to raise the threshold were designed to keep particular parties out of the Knesset.
Over the years the idea of raising the qualifying threshold to 4% or even 5% was initiated by different parties, usually the ultra-Orthodox parties, which finally led the proposers to abandon their efforts.
Thus, following the establishment of a national unity government in 1984, a committee made up of representatives of the Labor alignment and the Likud and chaired by the late Gad Yaacobi, was appointed to propose reforms in Israel's electoral system, and one of its agreed proposals was to raise the qualifying threshold to 5%.
The move was finally thwarted by the Likud central committee as a result of pressure from Agudat Yisrael which viewed the move as an attempt to push the haredim out of the Knesset.
What is disturbing about the current initiative, which will probably turn into law in the Knesset’s winter session after the summer recess, is the fact that over the years Yisrael Beytenu has not concealed its desire to disqualify at least some of the Arab parties and MKs. There are those who suspect that even though the formal explanation of the current proposal to raise the qualifying threshold is to lead to a reduction in the number of parliamentary groups in the Knesset – by encouraging small parties to run in a single list – the real intention is to reduce Arab representation.
In a television interview with Channel 10 on Saturday, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman openly stated that he would be delighted if Ahmed Tibi – one of the Arab MKs who is well integrated into Israel's parliamentary life – would emigrate from the country.
While it might appear perfectly logical that the Israeli Arabs should all run in a single Arab list, the truth is that, as pointed out by MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad), ethnicity on its own is not a sufficient basis for running together in elections, adding that personally he has very little, if anything in common with the Communist ideology of Hadash, or the Islamic elements in United Arab List- Ta’al.
Though I personally believe that it is in our interest to avoid alienating Israel’s Arab citizens by devising all sorts of direct and indirect methods to reduce their power and influence, I would nevertheless suggest the Arab politicians use the new challenge in order to start putting their own house in order.
Today, Arabs citizens of Israel constitute 22% of the total population. This means that in electoral terms they could potentially have 24 Knesset members.
The reason there are currently only 11 Arab MKs is that the voting-rate is much lower in the Arab sector than in the Jewish sector, and that many Arabs vote for “Jewish” parties (primarily, but not only, Labor and Meretz).
Short of running on a single list without giving up their separate party structures, maintaining a single parliamentary group throughout the Knesset’s term, and then splitting up before new elections for the purpose of party financing (as Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah have done for years), if the Arab parties would simply act to increase the voting rate of the Arab population, they could all easily pass the 4% qualifying threshold.
By allowing the current situation of low-Arab-voting-rates to persist, these parties are simply playing into the hands of certain right-wing forces that refuse to contend with the demographic reality and believe that somehow Israel can continue to be a democratic state while treating its Arab citizens like excess baggage.
Or worse, they believe that Israel can continue to thrive while shedding important elements of its democratic system under the guise of improved governability.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.