Analysis from Israel

In two weeks, Israel will conclude its first election campaign under a new law that significantly raised the electoral threshold. Previously, parties had to win 2.4 seats to enter the Knesset; now, they must win four. And judging by the polls, the result has been disastrous: Not only is the higher threshold keeping out parties we should want in, but it’s also letting in parties we should want out.

The salient example of the first problem relates to the Arab parties. A poll published in Haaretz last month found that Arab voters overwhelmingly want their MKs to focus on their own community’s socioeconomic problems rather than the Palestinian problem (70% to 30%). They also overwhelmingly want their MKs to join the government (61% to 36%), since coalition parties wield more influence than opposition parties do; this desire is so strong that almost half that 61% favor joining regardless of who becomes prime minister. Finally, since existing Arab MKs not only spend most of their time and energy supporting the Palestinians, but adamantly refuse to join any government (as MKs Masud Ganaim and Ahmed Tibi recently reaffirmed), almost half the respondents were, unsurprisingly, highly dissatisfied with their current MKs.

Israel has an obvious interest in facilitating the growth of new Arab parties that would reflect these respondents’ priorities. Arabs’ attitudes toward the state would presumably improve if their representatives could join the cabinet and produce concrete benefits for their community instead of being condemned by their own anti-Israel rhetoric to eternally shout empty slogans from the opposition benches. And Jewish attitudes toward the Arab minority would presumably improve if Arab MKs stopped attacking Israel night and day and instead started working for their constituents’ welfare.

Encouragingly, such parties even exist already, spurred by similar poll findings in 2012. In 2013, none of them got in, but this year, their prospects should have been better – not only because any new party needs time to earn name recognition and persuade people to change long-established voting habits, but also because of recent changes in Israeli Arab attitudes toward the state. After all, no new party could join the government without abandoning the existing parties’ pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel attitudes, and not long ago, that would have been an electoral nonstarter. But recent studies reveal a growing Arab identification with Israel: A survey taken in May, for instance, found that 65% of Israeli Arabs were proud to be Israeli, and another published last month found that despite the summer’s tensions, 55% of Israeli Arabs now identify with the Israeli flag, up from 37% last year.

All this should have made it easier for Arabs to support a new, domestically-oriented party. Instead, the higher the electoral threshold has made it impossible.

A low electoral threshold encourages people to risk voting for a new party, both because its chances of getting in are better and because fewer votes will be wasted if the gamble fails. But with a four-seat threshold, few voters will take the risk: The chances of getting in are too low, and the number of votes wasted by a failed bid is too high.

Moreover, the higher threshold has forced the three existing parties to unite lest they fail to enter the Knesset at all. Thus instead of a new party being just another entrant in what was already a three-way race, it would now be the sole focus of a united juggernaut’s attacks, and would be accused of destroying Arab unity to boot.

In short, by raising the electoral threshold, Israel has virtually eliminated any possibility of something it desperately needs: an Arab party that fosters integration rather than Jewish-Arab tensions.

The second problem caused by the higher threshold is exemplified by Baruch Marzel, a former Kahanist whose Otzma Yehudit party is running on a joint ticket with Eli Yishai’s Yahad. Otzma is a collection of far-right extremists that has repeatedly failed (under various names) to enter the Knesset. But this time, precisely because of the higher threshold, it looks set to succeed.

Why? Because though Yahad could easily have cleared the old threshold on its own, polls showed it missing the new, higher threshold by a few thousand votes. So to boost it over, Yishai was forced to ally with a party he previously wanted nothing to do with. True, he could have kept his hands clean at the price of his party’s defeat – but how many politicians would ever do that?

Clearly, Israel doesn’t benefit from having anti-Arab extremists like Marzel in the Knesset. In contrast, Yishai’s party actually serves two important functions. First, it has attracted Sephardi voters who aren’t ready to abandon identity politics, but would rather not support a convicted criminal like Shas leader Aryeh Deri. Polls currently show Shas losing about four seats, with many of those votes going to Yishai. And if Shas pays a real electoral price for reinstating the corrupt Deri, other parties may think twice about tolerating corruption within their own ranks.

Second, Yishai’s unabashedly rightist diplomatic stance is attracting significant support from religious Zionism’s hardal wing, which shares the haredi parties’ attitude toward religion but not their willingness to countenance territorial concessions. For years, hardalim have supported the religious Zionist Bayit Yehudi party or its predecessors, and in exchange, Bayit Yehudi largely toed the haredi line on religious issues. But if hardalim now leave in significant numbers, Bayit Yehudi might finally resume representing religious Zionism’s sorely missed traditional stance – a moderate Orthodoxy committed to finding halakhic solutions to national problems.

Thus the best outcome for Israel would be Yahad without Otzma. And under the old electoral threshold, that’s exactly what we would have gotten. Instead, by raising the threshold, we’ve virtually ensured that Otzma will get in on Yishai’s coattails.

I once opposed raising the threshold for fear of driving fringe elements out of the democratic game altogether and thereby increasing the risk of their resorting to violence. But it turns out the higher threshold has actually empowered Jewish extremists while disempowering Arab moderates – the worst of all possible outcomes. Thus the next Knesset’s first order of business must be reinstating the old, lower threshold.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on March 2, 2015

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How Israel’s Electoral System Brings the Country’s Fringes Into Its Center

Like Haviv Rettig Gur in “How and Why Israelis Vote,” I, too, think the advantages of Israel’s parliamentary system outweigh its disadvantages, and for essentially the same reason: because it keeps a great many people in the political system who would otherwise remain outside it.

Critics of the system’s plethora of small parties—as Gur notes, no fewer than 43 parties have been vying for Knesset seats in this year’s election—maintain that it should be streamlined and redesigned so that only big parties would be able to enter the Knesset. In that case, the critics argue, people who currently vote for small parties would simply switch their votes to large ones.

No doubt, some voters would do so—but many others would not. There are at least three groups among whom turnout would plummet if niche parties became by definition unelectable: Arabs, Ḥaredim (including some ḥaredi Zionists), and the protest voters who, in every election, propel a new “fad” party into the Knesset. (In 2015, as Gur writes, the fad party was Kulanu. This year, it’s been Moshe Feiglin’s pro-marijuana, libertarian, right-wing Zehut party, which Gur doesn’t discuss although polls have consistently showed it gaining five to seven seats.)

Together, these three groups constitute roughly a third of the country, and all three are to some extent alienated from the mainstream. If they were no longer even participating in elections, that alienation would grow.

Why does this matter? In answering that question, I’ll focus mainly on Ḥaredim and Arabs, the most significant and also the most stable of the three groups (protest voters being by nature amorphous and changeable).

It matters primarily because people who cease to see politics as a means of furthering their goals are more likely to resort to violence. Indeed, it’s no accident that most political violence in Israel has issued from quarters outside the electoral system.

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