For Arab voters, a boon in disguise

Why a government plan to increase the electoral threshold, blasted as ‘racist’ by Arab parties, might be the best news Israel’s Arab citizens have heard in a long time

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Balad Member of Knesset Jamal Zahalke gesticulates while addressing the Knesset plenum  in Jerusalem, July 31, 2013. (Credit: Flash90)
Balad Member of Knesset Jamal Zahalke gesticulates while addressing the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, July 31, 2013. (Credit: Flash90)

Arab Members of Knesset have not been stingy with the anger and invective they have hurled at a new reform being advanced that would raise the electoral threshold for entering the Knesset.

The two bills that make up the reform, sponsored by coalition members Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu, would raise the minimum number of votes required for a party to enter the Knesset from 2 percent of all votes to 4%, or from roughly 80,000 votes to nearly 160,000.

In last January’s elections for the 19th Knesset, both Arab parties won fewer votes than the suggested threshold: 138,000 for Ra’am-Ta’al and 97,000 for Balad. Hadash, the joint Arab-Jewish communist party, also fell short, garnering 113,000 ballots.

“This decision will erase Arabs’ political representation. It is the most anti-democratic proposal that there has ever been in the Knesset,” MK Jamal Zahalke (Balad) said at a Knesset Law Committee debate on the bill last week.

More to the point, when asked if the three parties couldn’t simply unite into a single party, Zahalke rejected the idea as “paternalistic.”

“There’s a huge gap between me as a secular, modern, enlightened nationalist and the communists [in Hadash] or the Islamists [in Ra’am-Ta’al]. It’s paternalistic to say, ‘Run as a single party. You’re all Arabs.’”

As the two bills passed their first reading Wednesday in the Knesset plenum, Arab MKs, joined by several colleagues from Meretz, Labor and ultra-Orthodox parties, went silent during their allotted speaking time at the Knesset plenum’s podium.

But for all the ire and hand-wringing the initiative has engendered among Arab lawmakers, it’s not clear that the reform will harm Arab political representation in the Knesset. In fact, it stands a decent chance of dramatically increasing it.

Existing law allows MKs to split from their parties and form new factions if enough “rebels” come along. In doing so, the splinter groups take with them their portion of the public campaign financing guaranteed to parties according to their Knesset representation.

The new reform being advanced as part of the electoral threshold change would place financial sanctions on parties that seek to splinter in the two years following an election, or in the three months before the next election. Specifically, it would deny public funding in the next election — private funding is not allowed in parliamentary elections — for MKs who break away during the designated periods, unless the breakaway contingent constitutes a majority of a party’s MKs.

The goal, say the reform’s drafters, is to prevent MKs from entering the Knesset on false pretenses and then abandoning the list that got them elected, or from manipulating public campaign funding by artificially rearranging the sizes of factions ahead of an election.

But a little-noticed provision in the new reform stipulates that any party list made up of two or more registered parties can splinter along party lines without limit or financial penalty. For example, the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu faction, which ran in the election as a single list but remained legally registered as two distinct parties that maintain distinct institutions and finances, would be able to split at any time under the new rules without penalty.

So would other multi-party alliances, which in the current Knesset include Meretz, United Torah Judaism and Jewish Home.

The bottom line: The Arab parties would not have to unite their memberships, finances or even party platforms in order to run as a joint list for the elections. They would only have to present a minimal shared agenda and a joint list of Knesset candidates. They would even be able to divide back into their constituent parties the day after the election without any penalty.

It would be a confederation of convenience, but one that could dramatically reshape the campaigns conducted in the Arab sector.

Currently, the parties that rely primarily on Arab votes compete against one another in campaigns that often turns negative and even tribal. Like all political parties in any democracy, they are often as busy badmouthing and otherwise attempting to depress the turnout among Arab voters for other Arab parties as they are attracting the sector’s voters to their own side.

As they focus almost all their energy on the internal contest for the Arab population’s votes, Arab parties have done an exceedingly poor job of actually getting more Arabs to come out and vote. The three Arab parties attracted a total of 349,000 votes in last January’s election, or just 46% of the 765,000 eligible voters in the Arab sector.

That puts the Arab parties’ showing among their own base constituency at more than 20 points behind the countrywide voter turnout of 67%. All things being equal, and assuming a negligible Arab voter turnout for non-Arab parties, an Arab turnout of 67% could have raised Arab representation in the Knesset from the current 11 seats to 18, making the joint list, even if it doesn’t last very long, the third-largest party in the Knesset.

There is little doubt that MK Zahalke is correct: There are vast differences in outlook and ideology among Israel’s 1.6 million Arabs. But under the new reform — at least as it passed in its first reading Wednesday — they would be able to maintain their distinct factions in the Knesset.

Meanwhile, the Arab parties’ electoral efforts would shift away from jostling with other Arab parties for a relatively narrow constituency toward the single overriding interest they would all share: getting more Arab citizens to actually cast their vote.

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