Analysis from Israel
Many Israelis are willing to tolerate a racist party in the Knesset because they fear that the alternative is a government that will make life-threatening territorial concessions. And when voters think human life is at stake, telling them to “just say no” won’t work.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s midwifing of a joint ticket that will bring a far-right extremist party into the Knesset was quickly superseded by new scandals. Yet the fundamental problem that prompted his move remains, and contrary to popular belief, that problem isn’t growing racism. Rather, it’s Israel’s electoral system.

The party in question, Otzma Yehudit, has run for Knesset several times under various names and never gotten in. On its own, it wouldn’t make it into the next Knesset either. In other words, its positions are no more popular than they ever were.

What has changed is Israel’s electoral threshold—the minimum number of votes a party must receive to enter the Knesset. In 2014, it was raised to 3.25 percent of the total vote, equivalent to 3.9 Knesset seats. That sounds like a minor increase from the previous threshold of 2 percent (2.4 seats), but it’s enough that in both the last election and this one, a small mainstream party which could easily have passed the old threshold found itself hovering just below the new one, and consequently hooked up with Otzma in an effort to boost itself over.

The higher threshold also threatens the entire bloc to which an at-risk party belongs since the main electoral blocs are fairly evenly balanced. Either bloc might be able to afford two seats’ worth of wasted votes. But neither can afford almost four seats.

That’s why Netanyahu used a combination of arm-twisting and sweeteners to persuade a veteran religious Zionist party, Jewish Home, to partner with Otzma this election (last election, Otzma’s partner was Yachad, a breakaway from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party led by former Shas leader and six-time minister Eli Yishai; their joint ticket still failed to clear the threshold). Jewish Home was in danger of falling below the threshold because its former leaders, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, jumped ship in December to form their own party.

With a lower threshold, Netanyahu would have no interest in promoting a merger between Jewish Home and Otzma: By definition, any party that couldn’t get elected on its own would win few enough votes that the bloc could probably spare them. Today, however, Jewish Home could easily fail to pass the threshold while still wasting enough votes to cost the right its majority. So for anyone who considers a continuation of rightist policy essential, as Netanyahu and Jewish Home both do, shoring up the latter through a joint ticket suddenly looks essential as well.

Many people would obviously argue that partisan interests can never justify mainstreaming an extremist party like Otzma. Others might dismiss the policy justification as a pretext, given that Netanyahu and his main rival, former general Benny Gantz, largely seem to agree on key issues like security and the peace process.

The problem is that a critical mass of Israelis patently disagrees. When Netanyahu staked his prestige on the Otzma merger, he was betting that the number of votes his bloc would gain by boosting Jewish Home over the threshold would outweigh the number he’d lose from people disgusted by Otzma. And so far, the polls have proved him right.

To understand why, some history is needed. In the 17 years preceding Netanyahu’s 2009 victory, Israelis thrice elected former generals who campaigned against diplomatic concessions, which they promptly turned around and implemented once in office. Yitzhak Rabin promised no negotiations with the PLO in 1992, then signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. Ehud Barak promised not to divide Jerusalem in 1999, then offered the Palestinians half the city at the Camp David summit in 2000. Ariel Sharon campaigned against a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2003, then implemented one in 2005.

These U-turns reflect a fundamental fact of Israeli life: All prime ministers are under massive, continuous international pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. Premiers with leftist coalition partners—which Rabin, Barak and Sharon all had, and Gantz almost certainly would as well—are also under pressure from their own coalitions to make such concessions. And most people simply can’t withstand such immense pressure.

But Netanyahu has proven for 10 years now that he can. Thus anyone fearful of further territorial concessions has good reason to stick with him rather than gambling on Gantz.

And given what previous withdrawals have cost, such fear is unquestionably justified. Rabin’s Oslo Accords and Barak’s failed summit both sparked upsurges of terror that together killed some 1,500 Israelis. Sharon’s disengagement led to 20,000 rockets being launched on Israel’s south.

In short, voters who worry that Gantz will be unable to withstand pressure for concessions see Otzma as the lesser evil because they believe that the alternative entails against a significant risk of many dead Israelis. And when voters think human lives are at stake, expecting them to “just say no to racism” won’t work. The only way to return Otzma to the political fringes where it belongs is by lowering the electoral threshold.

I’ve long favored a lower threshold for other reasons as well. First, as researcher Shany Mor persuasively argued in 2013, a low threshold provides a safety valve for fractured societies like Israel’s. By offering the possibility that even small groups can win representation in parliament, it encourages them to pursue their goals through politics as opposed to violence.

Second, as I’ve explained in more detail elsewhere, a lower threshold would facilitate the entry of new parties that Israel actually needs, like a moderate Arab party and a moderate haredi one. Demand exists for such parties in both communities. But a higher threshold discourages voters from taking a flyer on a new party, since it means the party will have less chance of getting in and will waste more votes if it fails.

Yet as the last two elections have counterintuitively proven, a lower threshold also reduces the likelihood of extremists entering the Knesset by eliminating a powerful incentive to merge with them. Thus anyone who wants to see Otzma relegated back to the sidelines should lobby for lowering the threshold. That would be far more effective than expecting voters to nobly shun extremists, even if they think doing so risks Israeli lives.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on March 13, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

One Response to The problem isn’t racism, it’s the electoral system

Subscribe to Evelyn’s Mailing List

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.

Read more
Archives