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Clearing the Threshold

Nicholas Jahr
March 15, 2015

A Look at Israeli Election Dynamics

by Nicholas Jahr

F070307OC03-e1388618893102BACK IN EARLY MARCH OF LAST YEAR, the Knesset passed an amendment to the Israeli Basic Law increasing the electoral threshold, the minimum percentage of votes a party needs to win to be allotted seats in the Knesset. The amendment was drafted in part by MK Ronen Hoffman, a member of the centrist party Yesh Atid (founded by former TV newsman Yair Lapid). Hoffman was making good on a Yesh Atid campaign pledge; the party had argued that increasing the threshold would keep small parties out of the Knesset, thus making its fractious coalition politics more stable. Yesh Atid was, of course, part of the governing coalition, along with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu; one of the latter’s MKs, David Rotem, chaired the committee that oversaw the bill.

The Israeli center has repeatedly taken up this cause; a Kadima MK had introduced a similar measure in the previous Knesset, which would have raised the electoral threshold to five percent. In 1951, the threshold actually stood at one percent. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Knesset bumped it just slightly upwards to 1.5 percent. Prior to the 2006 elections, it crept up another half point to two percent. This most recent reform pegged it at 3.25 percent.

That small increase has had large implications.

In the previous eight Knesset elections, over the last quarter century, Israeli Arab parties have consistently received less than 3.25 percent of the vote. Exclude elections in which Hadash, the Jewish and Arab Communist party, won seats, and five sessions of the Knesset would have had no Israeli Arab representation whatsoever. Of the four Israeli Arab parties, only a single one would have cleared the 3.25 percent threshold in the last two elections.

“It looks like the Arab parties were targeted,” says Tom Mehager of Adalah, which has defended the rights of Israeli Arabs for nearly two decades. Along with another of Israel’s leading civil rights groups, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Adalah came out against the amendment. (ACRI issued a position paper [PDF] which details its concerns in full.) Both groups filed amicus briefs in a challenge to it before the Supreme Court. The Court dismissed the petition by an 8-1 vote.

“Let’s put it this way: if you see who was behind the increase of the threshold, you can imagine the motivation,” says Uri Zaki, currently holding down the tenth spot on Meretz’s list. “The party that was behind it was Lieberman’s party. This is the guy who told [an Israeli Arab politician]... in a TV debate that he should not be in Israel, he should not be a citizen, so on and so forth. At least part of the motivation was trying to make the threshold such that the Arab parties would not profit.” (For the TV debate in question, see here or here.)

“Yesh Atid brought [the bill] forward,” notes ACRI’s director of policy advocacy, Debbie Gild-Hayo. “Lieberman and others of course had other interests. Which they didn’t even hide. It’s not like this is a hidden agenda. Many of them said it here and there, that the Arabs won’t be represented in the Knesset.”

Israeli Arab MK Haneen Zoabi has no doubt about the intent of the law: “The motive was to decrease the representation of the Arab parties inside the Knesset, and to justify this by saying they want to make the government more stable.” First elected to the Knesset in 2009, Zoabi herself has been the target of rightwing efforts to expel her from parliament for her take-no-prisoners rhetoric. She doesn’t disappoint: “Whether the motive was to get rid of the Arab parties or they were just indifferent,” she says, “this is the same. This is the same racist attitude.”

ELEVATING THE THRESHOLD is just one of a number of reforms that has been supported by the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank that includes as part of its vision “a state whose Arab citizens and other minorities comprise vital and integral parts of society and the body politic.” Dr. Ofer Kenig, an IDI researcher, thinks the increase was “drastic” and should have been phased in.

“Every modern democracy weighs two very important values,” he says. “The first value is representation, meaning the ambition to give a voice to every segment in society, and the other value is governability, the ability to govern and promote policy. These two values are sometimes contradictory.” Dr. Kenig calculates that since 1990 Israel has held new elections, on average, every 2.8 years, more frequently than famously dysfunctional Italy. “We saw,” he says, “that one of the major problems in Israeli politics is the excessive number of political parties. Even though Israeli society is very plural and diverse, there are too many parties and the electoral threshold could help.... With a smaller number of parties, hopefully coalitions will be more stable.”

Italy actually has a higher electoral threshold than Israel: an independent political party needs to capture 4 percent of the nationwide vote to be included in parliament. Sweden plays by similar rules. In Germany the threshold hits 5 percent, but as part of a mixed system in which voters cast two ballots, one of which is for a local representative decided by a simple majority, as in the U.S.

“In other countries,” observes Debbie Gild-Hayo, “the system is different and allows representation for minorities, which we don’t have.” Tom Mehager raises similar concerns: “If we’re thinking about minority rights, the ... pattern here in Israel is that usually they get between two and three percent. You can’t ignore that. You can’t say, ‘But in different states, it’s four percent.’ Here, objectively, most of the parties stand between two and three percent. So if they increase it exactly to 3.25...”

That one-and-a-quarter percentage point may seem like a small number, but as Dr. Kenig himself observes in an IDI briefing paper:

In the 2013 elections, when some 3.8 million Israelis went to the polls, a party needed 75,800 votes to make it into the Knesset. If the same number of people turns out to vote this year, a party will need at least 123,500 votes to qualify.

So any given party would need to increase its voting strength by roughly two-thirds, a staggering leap.

FACING THESE ODDS, the Israeli-Arab parties took an unprecedented step. Despite sometimes profound ideological differences, the four parties — Hadash, Balad, Ra’am Ta’al, and the Islamic Movement — united to run as one for election. (Adalah founder Hassan Jabareen reportedly helped mediate between the parties.)

“We really thank Lieberman,” says MK Zoabi. “Ten years ago we [Balad] said, ‘As Palestinians, we must be united.’ For others, maybe they needed this law in order to be convinced.” Zoabi holds the seventh place on the new Joint List. Polls have the list taking as many as 13 seats, potentially becoming the third largest party in the Knesset. The Israeli Arab share of the parliament will still be well below their share of the population.

Debbie Gild-Hayo of ACRI argues that even if the Joint List maintains roughly the same number of representatives as the parties did separately, the threshold remains discriminatory. “It’s very problematic politically that a group that is twenty percent of the population here, they don’t get to have a choice, a democratic choice.”

In the end, MK Zoabi agrees: “Ideally, we should decide on this unity alone, not because we are forced to do so.” To her mind, “the ideal situation is to have the opportunity to have several parties and to decide to be united by ourselves, and not as a reaction to Israeli law.” Despite the circumstances of the unity agreement, and the fact that it came late in the election season meant “we didn’t have enough time to campaign,” Zoabi believes the joint list will nonetheless energize Israeli Arab turnout, which in recent elections has been 12 to 17 points below that of Israeli Jews. “I’m sure,” she says. “This is our opportunity.”

IRONICALLY, ISRAEL BEITEINU now finds itself in danger of slipping below the threshold it hoisted up. Most polls over the last week predict the party — which won 15 seats in its first Knesset election in 2009, and joined with Netanyahu’s Likud to take 31 seats in 2013 — will have at most six seats, and possibly as few as four.

Those with a stake in the currently comatose peace process could conclude Israel would be better off without Israel Beiteinu. Similarly, former Shas leader Eli Yishai — who steered the Sephardi Ultra-Orthodox party sharply rightward after 2000 — has also at times arguably played the spoiler. You have to go back to 1992, however, before you turn up an election in which Shas won less than eight percent of the vote. Shutting such parties out of the Knesset would require an even steeper threshold.

As it is, Israel Beiteinu isn’t the only party at risk. Meretz, long the last bastion of Israel’s peace camp, is also struggling to clear the threshold (and is currently polling around five seats). Of course, the closer a party gets to the threshold, the more voters feel compelled to cast their ballots elsewhere. Some of Labor’s late surge in the polls is almost certainly a result of Meretz supporters throwing their votes to the party out of fear of throwing them away in the event that it was shut out of the next Knesset.

“It’s definitely a problem,” says Uri Zaki, number ten on Meretz’s list. “We are putting all of our efforts in order to make Meretz voters vote for Meretz. Some Meretz voters are now considering voting for the Zionist Union [Labor’s current incarnation] because they think that’s the only way to topple Netanyahu.”

Meretz’s fate may ultimately depend on its surplus vote agreement with Labor; if, when the ballots are counted, the Zionist Union has extra votes that aren’t enough to translate into a seat, as it almost certainly will, those “excess” votes will be attributed to Meretz, potentially pushing it over the top.

Some in the peace camp might be willing to sacrifice Meretz to be rid of Israel Beiteinu, or the Shas of the 21st century, or the National Religious Party, or its successor Habayit Hayehudi. “The higher you make the threshold, that’s a way to make bigger parties,” Uri Zaki observes. “The question is whether that suits the logic behind the Israeli proportional system. If you don’t want a proportional system, change the system. Altogether. The raising of the bar is just acting against the logic of our proportional system, which is very democratic.”

“Theoretically,” says ACRI’s Debbie Gild-Hayo, “it would be best if there was no threshold.” Tuesday’s election will put that proposition to the test.

Correction March 16, 2015 10:40 am: This article originally stated that the surplus vote agreement between Meretz and Labor might assist the former party to pass the threshold, but the agreement only becomes active if both parties have done so. It has also been edited to clarify that Eli Yishai left Shas.

Nicholas Jahr is a freelance writer and member of the editorial board of Jewish Currents. He has worked as an election observer in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Libya. Follow him on Twitter at @nicholasjahr.

Nicholas Jahr is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn and a member of Jewish Currents’ editorial board. In the past he has written for the magazine about comics, film, the diaspora, Israeli elections, and Palestinian nonviolence. His work has appeared in the International New York Times, The Nation, City & State, and the Village Voice (RIP).