Electoral reform bill moves forward, but PM to reconsider support

Arab MKs stage dramatic silent protest in Knesset plenum over law that would raise electoral threshold beyond the current showing of any Arab party

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

MK Ahmed Tibi standing with his back to the plenum in protest of the electoral reform bill. (photo credit: Flash90)
MK Ahmed Tibi standing with his back to the plenum in protest of the electoral reform bill. (photo credit: Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to “reconsider” a controversial reform that would raise the electoral threshold for a party seeking to enter the Knesset.

The reform seeks to double the threshold from two percent of all votes to four percent. The bill has drawn vociferous protests, especially from Arab parties. The raised threshold could put all three Arab parties and some of the far-right and far-left parties outside the Knesset, based on their electoral showing in the last two elections, and might therefore force such parties to unite with others or risk extinction.

The reform, structured in two bills, passed its first of three readings in the Knesset on Wednesday by a margin of 63 to 46 and 64 to 49.

Both bills must pass through committee and another two votes in the plenum before they become law. As Wednesday marked the final day of the summer session and the start of the fall recess, the bills will not be brought up for the next vote until November.

In the interim, Netanyahu plans to “reconsider the issue,” according to a senior coalition source. “The prime minister has not said that he opposes the [higher] electoral threshold,” the source said on Wednesday. “And it has to pass in the first reading in any case because of [Likud’s] commitment to Yisrael Beytenu.”

The reform sparked a dramatic, unusual protest that began among Arab MKs and quickly spread to left-wing parties, especially Meretz and Labor. After the passage of the first half of the reform but before the vote on the second, MK Mohammed Barakeh (Hadash) used his three minutes at the podium to stand silent in protest of the bill.

The move surprised the few MKs who had not left the plenum for the debate period; barely a dozen MKs were present to witness Barakeh’s protest.

He was followed by Hana Swed (Hadash), Dov Khenin (Hadash), Afu Agbariya (Hadash), Hanin Zoabi (Balad), Jamal Zahalke (Balad) and Basel Ghattas (Balad).

Ghattas was followed by Meretz chair Zehava Gal-On, who said Meretz, too, “is silent in solidarity with those Arab parties who may find themselves outside the Knesset.”

Gal-On was followed in the silent protest by fellow Meretz MKs Nitzan Horowitz and Michal Rozin, Labor MKs Nachman Shai and Merav Michaeli, and Haredi party representatives Moshe Gafni, Uri Maklev and Yisrael Eichler.

Some of the Arab MKs became the butt of jokes during their silent protest. When Zoabi stood silent at the podium, Shas leader Aryeh Deri quipped, “But why are you being silent in Arabic? At least be silent in Hebrew.” When Zahalke put tape over his mouth, Yesh Atid’s Penina Tamnu-Shata urged him to “watch your mustache.”

Still, the overall effect, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said afterward, was “powerful and showed we can have a passionate debate that still respects the dignity of the house.”

Aside from limiting who can enter the Knesset, the reform will also make it harder for parties to pass “no-confidence” motions that topple the government and send the country to new elections. And it will reduce the size of the cabinet to 19 ministers, including the prime minister.

Israel has seen 33 governments in 65 years, with governments surviving on average roughly half their allotted terms. The reform will bring greater stability to Israeli governance, proponents have said.

Hatnua faction chair MK Meir Sheetrit used his time at the podium to argue that “the excitement around this legislation is unnecessary. Until each of us is elected personally from a designated region, and has to be responsible to our voters rather than our central committees or party leaders, we won’t have a ‘democratic’ reform here.”

The governance reform is part of a grand bargain that is holding the ruling coalition together. Each of the five parties in the coalition is advancing a signature piece of legislation, and has agreed to support the other coalition members’ initiatives in exchange for guaranteed passage of its own.

The Likud has passed the change in daylight savings and a major reform of Israel’s ports that is expected to lower the cost of some consumer goods. Jewish Home demanded the referendum bill anchoring the requirement for a popular referendum to approve land swaps and withdrawals from Jerusalem in the case of a peace agreement. Yisrael Beytenu and Yesh Atid are pushing the governance reform, while Yesh Atid and Jewish Home are jointly advancing the universal draft bill that would expand the military and national service draft to include the haredi population. Hatnua has conditioned its remaining in the coalition on the continued pursuit of the peace talks now underway in Washington.

Referring to that grand bargain, Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, after a minute of silence at the podium, told the plenum Wednesday night that “there isn’t a majority for this bill. I know a majority will raise their hands, but I’ve spoken to the heads of every coalition party, and they don’t want this. They’re being forced to pass it.”

Supporters of the bill, including one of its key sponsors Yesh Atid MK Ronen Hoffman, have argued that the higher electoral threshold would force constituencies to unite politically, weakening the tendency of political differences to augment social and ethnic divides.

“This was originally an idea that began on the left side of the spectrum,” Education Minister Shai Piron (Yesh Atid) noted Wednesday.

Arab MKs have railed bitterly against the idea of uniting their three fractious parties. Balad’s Zahalke told the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee last week that “there’s a huge gap between me as a secular, modern, enlightened nationalist [in Balad] 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.’ There’s a larger gap between me and [Ra’am-Ta’al] MK [Ibrahim] Sarsour than between [Shas] MK [Avraham] Michaeli and [Meretz] MK Michal Rozin.”

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