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Gafni puts forward bill to lower electoral threshold to 2%

Legislation proposed by Degel HaTorah faction would reduce the minimum number of seats needed to enter Knesset, enable it to split from the United Torah Judaism alliance

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

United Torah Judaism party chief Moshe Gafni holds a press conference (together with UTJ MK Yaakov Litzman and Shas head Aryeh Deri) at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism party chief Moshe Gafni holds a press conference (together with UTJ MK Yaakov Litzman and Shas head Aryeh Deri) at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The head of the United Torah Judaism party, Moshe Gafni, has put forward a bill to reduce the Knesset’s current electoral threshold from 3.25 percent to only 2%, a move that would enable his Ashkenazi Haredi party to split in two.

A lower electoral threshold would also enable other smaller parties to make their way into Knesset. Currently, the 3.25% threshold means a party needs to win at least four seats to make it into Knesset; parties under the limit have their votes redistributed among other parties proportionally. The new bill would lower the threshold, likely to two seats.

The bill filed at the end of last week may hint at a power struggle within UTJ. The seven-seat faction is actually an alliance of two Ashkenazi Haredi parties, Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael. Degel HaTorah — Gafni’s faction — represents non-Hasidic Haredim. Over the past few years, Degel HaTorah has grown in influence relative to Agudat Yisrael, which represents Hasidic communities.

Gafni’s threshold-lowering bill is co-signed by the other three Degel HaTorah members of UTJ’s Knesset slate.

Agudat Yisrael historically held a majority of the party’s Knesset slate, until Degel HaTorah’s outsized showing in 2018 municipal elections forced a power realignment. Today, the two parties split Knesset representation. UTJ’s leadership also rotated last year from Agudat Yisrael’s now-retired MK Yaakov Litzman to Gafni, after 18 years with Litzman at the helm.

A lower electoral threshold would enable the parties to run as separate slates.

UTJ MK Yaakov Litzman speaks during a United Torah Judaism faction meeting, on December 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“He thinks he’ll have more votes” if Degel HaTorah were to run alone and not as part of the UTJ alliance, Haredi political analyst and adviser Avi Grinzweig said of Gafni.

As the possibility of elections looms ever nearer in the troubled Knesset, a divided UTJ is not the only faction threatened by the current electoral threshold. Several coalition parties — including Meretz, Ra’am, Yisrael Beytenu, New Hope and Yamina — are polling at around 4-5 seats.

With several coalition parties potentially threatened by the four-seat hurdle, a few Hebrew media outlets reported that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid supports Gafni’s bid to lower the threshold.

A spokesman for Lapid declined to comment, saying that “the issue is not currently on the agenda.”

The electoral threshold is an often-debated issue in Israeli politics. A lower threshold allows for more votes to be counted and fuller representation of the electorate, but can create a situation in which small parties of only a few members can make outsized demands to complete a coalition. A higher threshold limits this and consolidates power, but ultimately results in a certain percentage of each election’s vote tally being squandered.

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