Maximum threshold, minimized democracy

published: 08.08.2013

Just before the summer recess - after barely four months of work – the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, passed The Governance Law. Avigdor Lieberman, Chairman of the "Yisrael Beytenu" party and former controversial Minister of Foreign Affairs had a reason to be pleased, as was his partner, Yair Lapid, Chairman of the successful, newly formed "Yesh Atid" party. Indeed, both believe that the new law will finally strengthen the ruling government and turn Israel into a "normal" democracy.

Truth be told, in the past 12-14 years few governments have lasted and this, in part, is due to the difficulties in forming and maintaining a coalition.

The new law, which has passed a first reading, sets a threshold minimum of 4% of the total vote for parties to obtain seats in the Knesset. In addition, the law allows for more flexibility in approving the national budget while making it slightly more difficult to topple the Government

The threshold, the bill's most contentious article, is a measure long advocated by politicians and social scientists as the panacea that would help overcome the splintering of the Israeli body-politic. However, the measure has also been criticized by many as anti-democratic for fear it would put the survival of the smaller parties at risk. Moreover, it is considered as yet another piece of legislation directed against the Arab minority: The three Arab parties represented in the Knesset each have under five seats. Under the new system, they could be left out unless they unite. Since they represent a plurality of views – religious against secular, Islamist against communist – unity is unlikely. The suspicion of left-wing and Arab parties is not unfounded. There have been previous attempts to pass anti-democratic laws such as the "National State Law", which defines Israel as a Jewish state before a democratic one. The law also establishes a preference for those who have served in the army when making public appointments.

Israel's electoral system, no doubt, needs a reform.

For those unfamiliar with our system, Israel is a parliamentary democracy based on a multi-party system. Elections are held, in principle, every four years (unless the government falls); they are universal, meaning that every citizen 18 years and older can vote by secret ballot. When the state was created, its founding fathers – mainly the venerated Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion – wanted every trend, every group in the population, to be represented in the Knesset. And so the 1% threshold was adopted. It took forty years to raise it to 2%. Consequently, every Israeli government has been a coalition government. It is not only the multiplicity of parties – which over the years have turned sectarian – that have made governance difficult; it is mainly the disappearance of large parties, which in the past led the way and shaped clear policies for any government.

It has been argued that European democracies – like those of Germany or of Italy – can rule with higher thresholds. This is true, however one must remember that minority groups and parties can be represented and exert influence because of the decentralized form of government. They have the option of being elected to local parliaments in the "lander" in Germany, or in the regions and provinces of Italy. Not so in Israel, where they would simply disappear.

What is at stake is not only Israel's system of elections or the capacity of its government to rule, which is the essence of democracy. It is the question of whether the different groups – ethic, religious, political, – which make up the mosaic of the Israeli society, will be able to participate in our political life.

Just before his assassination, our late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin understood that Israeli Arabs should be included in that process. Eliminating them today would not only be a blow to democracy, it would act as a boomerang: It would further divide our society and exacerbates extremism in our midst.

Colette Avital is a former Israeli ambassador and former member of Knesset

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