MAXIMUM THRESHOLD – MINIMIZED DEMOCRACY

published in Ha'aretz - 8/3/17 - by Colette Avital

Just before the summer recess- after barely four months of work – the new Knesset, Israel's Parliament, passed a new law : the Governance Law. Avigdor Lieberman, Chairman of the "Israel our Home" party and former controversial Minister of Foreign Affairs had reason to be pleased, as was his partner, Yair Lapid, Chairman of the successful, newly formed party "There is a future", 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 lasted their day and this, in part, due to the difficulties in forming and maintaining a coalition.

The new law which passed so far a first reading, mandates 4% of the vote for parties to enter the Knesset. In addition it will give more flexibility in approving the national budget and will make it slightly harder to topple the Government

The most controversial part of this bill has been the increase of the minimum threshold from the existing 2% to 4% - a measure long advocated by politicians and social scientists as the panacea that would help overcome the splintering of the Israeli body-politic. This measure is however criticized by many as anti-democratic because it would put at risk of survival the smaller parties. Moreover it is  considered as a yet another piece of legislation directed against the Arab minority : the three Arab parties represented in the Knesset have each under five seats. Under the new system they could be left out unless they unite, Since they too represent a plurality of views  - religious against secular, islamist against communist – this is unlikely to happen , The suspicion of left-wing and Arab parties that the idea is to leave them out is not unfounded. There have been attempts in the previous Knesset to pass anti-democratic laws such as the "National State law", which defines Israel as a Jewish state before defining it as democratic, the law giving preference in public service to those who have completed their army service ,etc.

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

For those unfamiliar with our system , here is some background: 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 proverbial 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 another fourty 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 sectorial , that have made governance difficult, it is mainly the disappearance of large parties which, in the past could lead the way and shape 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, in the regions and provinces of Italy .Not so in Israel, where they would simply be made to disappear.

What is at stake is not only Israel's system of elections or the capacity of its government to rule, - it 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 nowadays from the system would not only be a blow to democracy, it would act as a boomerang :

It would bring further divisiveness in our society and exacerbate extremism in their midst.

 

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