A different version of this article was published last week by the IHT-NYT under the headline The Tyranny of the Minority.
Last Wednesday, the Knesset approved a number of changes to Israel’s election laws. One of them increases the electoral threshold – the minimum percentage of voters a party needs for it to get represented in parliament– from 2% to 4%. The new threshold is not yet the law, as more rounds of votes and debates are needed before the final vote. But the vote does prove that after many years of talking a lot and doing little about Israel’s electoral system, the current coalition is serious about amending it. And while it’s far from being clear that the “system” is Israel’s problem, the move might be worth a try.
Israel’s coalitions are often unstable and they usually struggle to survive. Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, one of Israel’s leading legal experts and a former politician, traces the problem- in a recent book- to the late Seventies. Up until then, Israel was essentially ruled by the Labor Party, which had a significant number of mandates with which to begin the process of coalition building. After the rise of the Likud in 1977, the consequent two-party rivalry eventually decreased the number of mandates for both parties, and made them both much more dependent on smaller parties and their appetite for political and budgetary concessions. Rubinstein, and many others, believe that this dependence amounts to an actual rule of the minority over the majority. In polls, more than sixty percent of Israelis support “changes to the system”, including an increase of the electoral threshold, and many activists (Rubinstein included) have made attempts to prompt the political system toward change.
So change is coming, amid great debate. During the vote, the opposition staged a silent protest, signifying what its members consider an attempt to shun minority representation in parliament. Earlier in the week, a group of Israeli intellectuals published a letter of protest against the new legislation. It didn’t really change the Knesset's mind. Change is now coming because of political reasons. The last round of elections decreased the power of the opponents to the law – notably ultra-Orthodox opponents - and two powerful coalition partners - the Israel Beiteinu Party and the Yesh Atid Party - have electoral reform as a major part of their platform and are insisting on actually implementing it.
Opponents of the change have three basic arguments: there is no problem, and hence no need for change; the changes will not be effective in addressing the problem (i.e., they will not give more mandates to the two largest parties); or – and obviously the most troubling – the changes will specifically hurt the Arab minority, 20% of the population. In fact, some opposition leaders suspect that this is the ultimate goal behind the new legislation- to get rid of the annoyance of having to deal with Arab parties. "Your aim is to banish the Arab MKs from the Knesset", the head of the leftist Meretz Party, Zehava Gal-On, cried during the Knesset debate. "This bill is shameful."
And indeed, if the threshold were increased to 4% no Arab party would be in the Knesset today, as an analysis (Hebrew) by Israel’s Central Elections Committee proves. The analysis was submitted to the Knesset before the vote, and it shows that of the current 12 parties in the parliament only 8 received enough votes to pass a 4% threshold. The four eliminations would be centrist Kadima (currently 2 mandates) and the three Arab parties (one of them is actually an Arab-Jewish party, but most of its voters are Arab): the United Arab List (4), Hadash (4) and Balad (3). No wonder that Arab legislators are saying that this legislation might put them out of business. It will “destroy the independence of the Arab representation in the Knesset”, said one of them.
So I called Rubinstein, a supporter the electoral change but also a known liberal, and his response was almost dismissive of these complaints. “The purpose of the change is to force smaller parties to merge into larger parties”, he said. So let them all merge. The Arab political bloc is 10-12 mandates according to polls, and there’s no reason to have three parties sharing it. Besides, Rubinstein said, such change could also prevent fringe Jewish extremists from squeezing into the Knesset. And it will merely put Israel where most other countries with similar electoral systems already are (Germany has a 5% threshold, Sweden 4%, Israel is nearly at the bottom of the list).
Merge? Arab members of Knesset see this idea as yet another demonstration of Jewish ignorance or racism. MK Jamal Zahalke of Balad angrily attacked the idea because “there’s a huge gap between me as a secular, modern, enlightened nationalist and the communists [of the Hadash party] or the Islamists [of the United Arab List]. It’s paternalistic to say, ‘Run as a single party. You’re all Arabs.’”
It’s hard to disagree with Zahalke. But there’s still an answer: If Arab parties can’t unite, let them unite with Jewish parties; or bridge their differences; or prioritize their list of desired policies; or take the risk of not getting in. At bottom, it isn’t clear – not even to the supporters of change – that an increase of the threshold would actually strengthen the larger parties. Some scholars believe that it would only increase the number of midsize parties and hence won't really stabilize the political system. Yet even in this case, the attempt is worth testing.
It is worth it because it might still work, but also as an educational move. For far too long Israelis – both Arabs and Jews – got used to choose an a-la-cart political platform tailored precisely to their tastes. In other words: a system that encourages small parties is also one that discourages compromise. It is true that in a country as varied and complicated as Israel the representation of minorities is crucial – but for a country as varied and complicated as Israel instilling the habit of compromise is even more important.