Israel has seen 33 governments in 65 years, with governments that often last barely half as long as their legally allotted terms. Now, two bills that have garnered the support of the majority coalition in the Knesset aim to do something dramatic about the country’s chronic political instability by making it more difficult to topple a government and strengthening the larger parties through raising the electoral threshold for entering the Knesset.
On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved one of the bills, proposed by MK Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid) and presented at the committee meeting by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, which would raise a party’s threshold for entering the Knesset from the current level of 2% of all votes cast to 4%. That increase would endanger the electoral prospects of smaller parties like Meretz, United Torah Judaism and all of the Arab parties, theoretically strengthening the bargaining position of larger parties.
“This bill balances the important principles of stable governance and a strengthened democracy,” Hoffman said Sunday. “Since the bill anchors [in law] the arrangements reached in the coalition agreement” — and therefore would likely enjoy the support of the majority coalition — “I believe the bill can pass into law in the current session, before the end of July.”
If the bill passes, the Kadima party, with just two seats in the current Knesset, would likely be wiped out in the next one. The far-right Otzma Leyisrael, which failed to meet the 2% threshold for the current Knesset, is unlikely to ever make it. Meanwhile, the three parties that draw the vast majority of Arab votes, Balad, Ra’am-Ta’al and Hadash, could face the grim choice of uniting or being left out of the next parliament.
The bill also seeks to limit the size of the cabinet and raise the Knesset vote requirement for a no-confidence motion that can topple the sitting government.
The current government has 21 ministers (not including the prime minister) and eight deputy ministers overseeing 30 ministerial portfolios. If the bill passes, no more than 18 ministers (not including the PM) and four deputy ministers would be able to serve in a given government. Each minister, the bill adds, would be responsible for a single ministry, and not, as is often the practice today, for a handful of ministries that add up to a position that a single individual cannot meaningfully fill.
Hoffman’s optimism is shared by proponents of a second bill, proposed by MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu), which contains many of the same provisions. It would raise the electoral threshold to 4%, impose the same limit on cabinet positions and allow a government to survive even if it fails to pass a budget.
Rotem’s bill was approved in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on May 6.
The ministerial committee process allows a bill to gain the support of the majority coalition before being presented for its preliminary reading on the Knesset floor. Unlike private member bills, which have a very small chance of passing into law, bills that garner the support of the government stand a higher than 90% chance.
While the two bills have a few minor differences — primarily in how they would limit the no-confidence vote, and in the speed in which they would enact the new electoral threshold — their similarity has left observers scratching their heads.
“It’s part of the negotiating process,” said a source close to Yesh Atid. “In the end, we all understand there will be a single bill, but we want a chance to put both sides on the table.”
Another coalition source familiar with both bills was more prosaic. “It’s a question of ego, of who will get the credit,” the source said. “Both Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu promised their voters meaningful reform of governance, and want the credit for the bill’s passage.”
That’s good news for the bill’s proponents.
“With a little goodwill, we will get there,” the coalition source surmised. “The gaps are small. The bill could be law by the end of July,” when the Knesset adjourns for the fall recess.
The bills contain a few additional provisions, most of which are found in the earlier one, Rotem’s, as well as the one approved Sunday.
A vote of no confidence, which topples a sitting government and sends the country to elections, would require 65 votes in the 120-seat Knesset rather than a narrow majority of 61.
And unlike the situation today, failure to pass a budget for each fiscal year by March 31 of that year would not immediately topple the government.
The bill also tackles the current ability of MKs, once elected, to split from their factions without limit and continue to serve to the end of their elected term. There were five such faction splits in the last Knesset. But if the bill passes, MKs who split from the party that elected them would not be able to take with them state funding guaranteed to each party according to its Knesset representation unless a majority of a faction’s MKs are participating in the split. In a system with tightly controlled political finance rules, the loss of public funding would constitute a significant handicap to any party’s reelection prospects.
Both bills state that the changes they contain would go into effect only in the next Knesset.