Governance Bill is a game-changer for Israeli politics

Behind the scenes and into the weeds of Tuesday’s passage of the most dramatic electoral reform in decades

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

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset as it votes on the Governance Bill, March 11, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset as it votes on the Governance Bill, March 11, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The most dramatic electoral reform in decades passed into law Tuesday morning after a fight that saw opposition MKs boycotting the debate in the Knesset plenum.

The Governance Bill, the term used to refer to a series of measures changing, among other things, the electoral threshold parties must reach to enter the Knesset, passed unchallenged in the plenum by 67-0 because of the opposition’s absence.

The bill also limits the size of the cabinet to 18 ministers and makes it more difficult to pass no-confidence votes to topple a government mid-term.

The bill needed 61 votes,  a majority of all Knesset members, to pass into law, instead of a majority of lawmakers present during the vote, because it included several changes to Israel’s Basic Laws that define the structure of government.

The Governance Bill is one of three legislative measures which appear set to pass in a marathon debate and voting session that started Monday and is expected to end on Thursday morning. The other two proposals are the Equal Service Bill to draft ultra-Orthodox men into national service and a Basic Law requiring a national referendum for withdrawal from Israeli sovereign territory in the framework of a peace agreement.

The opposition’s boycott of the votes was a remarkable show of unity for a fractured opposition that includes parties representing communities as disparate as ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arab nationalists and left-wing Israelis.

What united them, according to opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor), who led the walkout, was not the substance of the votes underway in the plenum, but the way in which they were brought to a vote. The push to pass all three bills in one week, ahead of the start of the spring recess later this month, was preventing serious debate on the measures.

“We haven’t even talked about the content of the bills,” said Eyal Shviki, Herzog’s spokesman. “The big story for us is the bullying way in which everything is being passed in three days, as though this was an emergency. We’re not opposed to the draft law; we support drafting Haredim,” Shviki added.

Opposition MKs meet Sunday night ahead of a boycott of three bills in the Knesset. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Opposition MKs meet Sunday night ahead of a boycott of three bills in the Knesset. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Indeed, the measure that passed Tuesday morning, which raised the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 3.25 percent, was similar to a bill presented by Herzog himself raising the threshold to 3%. Many members of the opposition who chose to boycott the vote, including Herzog, Labor Knesset faction head MK Eitan Cabel, Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on and others, are themselves signed on to similar bills to increase the threshold.

But the opposition says the speed of the vote raised a basic question of democratic procedure.

“Haredim will only be [forcibly] drafted in 2017 [under the current version of the Equal Service Bill]. Netanyahu won’t be returning territory in the next two months, before the end of the spring recess. And we’re not going to elections in that time either. So what’s the rush on these bills?” Shviki asked.

In fact, the bills were driven by “hatred, discrimination, and a desire to keep out certain parties and end debate in the Knesset,” Herzog said on Sunday when announcing the boycott, apparently criticizing the threshold increase and contradicting the later focus on procedure.

MK Hilik Bar (Labor) noted that the bills were passing despite lacking majorities in the Knesset.

“When we discovered the secret agreement, we understood the bills are being pushed through without majority support in the Knesset for their actual content,” he said. “So we decided we would boycott the plenum and hold an alternative discussion. A drastic response to a drastic move.”

The “secret agreement” in question was a letter drawn up over the weekend and signed by all five coalition party leaders that commits each to support the initiatives of the others — and highlights the disagreement within the coalition.

“In order to conclude the legislative process, strengthen the coalition and fulfill our goals and commitments to the public, we hereby commit to supporting the final passage of the three bills in the upcoming vote in the Knesset plenum,” it read.

The letter may carry legal significance – courts have already ruled that the coalition agreement establishing any given government has the weight of a contract between the coalition’s member parties – but its true importance is in highlighting the critical nature of the votes for each coalition member.

The coalition letter lays out which party requested which vote, revealing the quid pro quo nature of the proceedings.

“At the request of Yisrael Beytenu, the governance bills will come up for a [final] vote Tuesday morning. At the request of Yesh Atid, the Equal Service Bill [drafting Haredi men] will come up for a vote the following day, on Wednesday, while the vote on a national referendum will take place during the night between Wednesday and Thursday,” the letter, first publicized by the Ynet news site, read.

“If the governance and equal service bills pass in their full version (and, when necessary, with at least 61 votes), then Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu and Hatnua commit to have all their members of Knesset vote for the referendum bill, the third bill this week,” it adds.

The letter’s language – indeed, its very existence – highlights each party’s sense that its own legislative initiatives don’t enjoy unanimous support even within the coalition: a skeptical Hatnua was key in negotiating the new electoral threshold down from 4% to 3.25%; Yesh Atid and Hatnua do not support the referendum bill; and Jewish Home wants to moderate the Haredi draft bill.

“They understand the coalition isn’t homogeneous. They know they can’t take a chance on waiting, so they have to push everything to this week,” Bar said.

But coalition MKs were unfazed by the criticism.

“Labor didn’t want to be seen to vote on the Haredi draft, so as not to alienate Haredi support in the future,” a Likud MK suggested.

“We had debates in the first reading, debates in committee,” Deputy Minister Ofir Akunis said in the Knesset debate Monday. “The opposition’s position was heard clearly. But the opposition believes that as long as its opinion doesn’t win, then the public debate isn’t over. They need to stop being crybabies. That’s not leadership.”

Likud member Yariv Levin seen during an assembly session in the plenum hall at the Knesset on February 24, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Likud member Yariv Levin at the Knesset on February 24, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Coalition chairman MK Yariv Levin (Likud), who is set to leave the senior parliamentary role by the end of the month, promised on Monday that there would be meaningful discussion on the measures, which have been debated in committees for months.

“There will be a full, comprehensive, serious discussion [in the Knesset plenum], and at its end, a vote,” he said. “We are on the eve of a recess. Our duty is to hold an appropriate process, and then to allow [the Knesset] to make decisions and hold votes.

“Not only was this not pushed through without the opposition. How many bills have been debated as deeply, as specifically over dozens of meetings and long months in committees, and in the public debate as these three bills? What claims are left to be examined or raised?”

Other coalition MKs, especially MK Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid), one of the Governance Bill’s sponsors, noted there were over two dozen committee meetings and a debate over the past 10 months during which the opposition had many opportunities to change the bill.

“The bill started at an electoral threshold of 4%,” noted one coalition MK. “It was negotiated down in the committee process to 3.25%. So how can the opposition say it wasn’t involved?”

Yet despite the comments from Levin and Hoffman, delivered Monday in the plenum, it was actually coalition MKs who noted they found much to disagree with in the new bill, but would vote in favor for coalition reasons.

“Nothing will change if we don’t institute regional representation,” Hatnua Knesset faction chair MK Meir Sheetrit told the plenum on Monday.

Jewish Home MK Nissan Slomiansky noted that some coalition parties may rue the day they voted for the higher threshold.

“This won’t just hurt small, fringe parties,” he said. “Serious, mainstream parties also go through crises. My own party, the National Religious Party constituted today as Jewish Home, has been around since the founding of the state and represents a significant part of the public. But it went through a crisis [with just three MKs in 2006-2009] that would have wiped it out completely if this threshold [3.25%] had been in place.”

“This bill won’t improve governance. At the end of the day, will the citizen see better governance? Will the government’s difficulties in making and implementing decisions be made easier? That won’t happen. Governance requires regional, personal elections,” agreed MK Amram Mitzna (Hatnua).

The most fraught element of the new reform is the higher electoral threshold, which could push two of the three Arab-majority parties in the Knesset out of the parliament, based on their showing in the last elections in January 2013.

But, noted coalition MKs, the 3.25% threshold is hardly high among Western democracies. In Austria, Italy, Bulgaria and Sweden it is 4%. In Belgium, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Poland and Germany it is 5%.

Indeed, though the bill has been called “racist” by several Arab MKs, discussions are already underway among Arab factions to field a larger joint list in the next election that, say the MKs, could even increase their showing.

After the bill passed into law Tuesday, Finance Minister Yair Lapid praised its passage.

“The Israeli public will now have a more functional, efficient, focused government, without ministers without portfolio or other accouterments,” he said. “The Israeli public will have Knessets with broader political parties and more serious and constructive debates.”

That optimism will be tested in the coming years and future election cycles. But it’s a promising start for the government to a week of votes seen by coalition parties as essential to their electorates.

What’s in the bill?

Many elements of the Governance Bill, such as the new limits on the size of the cabinet and new budget arrangements, require changes to constitutional Basic Laws and must gain 61 votes in the plenum to pass into law.

Electoral threshold

The electoral threshold will rise from 2% of total votes to 3.25%, down from 4% in the original bill. If the new threshold had been in force in January 2013, three of the 12 parties currently serving in the Knesset would not have made it in: Hadash, which won 2.99% of votes, Balad (2.56%), and Kadima (2.08%).

No confidence

The bill dramatically changes the “no-confidence” process through which 61 MKs can topple a sitting government through a vote in the Knesset plenum. The current procedure allows no-confidence motions to be presented in the plenum almost without limit – indeed, three or four are raised each week by various opposition parties.

This process is one reason Israel has seen 33 governments in 65 years. In the new bill, the opposition would not be able to present a no-confidence motion without offering an alternative government, including naming a new prime minister and cabinet. Only if the new proposed government wins a Knesset majority would the old government fall. Instead of going to new elections, the new proposed government would take over and rule until the next parliamentary elections.

Campaign finance and faction splintering

The bill uses changes in campaign finance to create disincentives for MKs to splinter from their parties once they are elected to the Knesset. Under the new measures, a Knesset faction must have at least two MKs to win public campaign funding, the only kind allowed under Israeli law. Crucially, this limit on campaign funding won’t apply to distinct political parties who split from multi-party lists. Several Knesset factions, including Meretz, Likud-Beytenu and Ra’am-Ta’al are such multi-party lists, and can split along party lines without losing campaign funds.

The cabinet

The new bill would make it illegal to appoint more than 19 ministers and four deputy ministers to the cabinet (including the prime minister), and would cancel the post of “minister without portfolio,” employed by prime ministers in the past as a way to put MKs in the government after running out of ministries for them to run. (The last government had at one point 32 ministers and eight deputies. Four were ministers without portfolio, and several had ministries invented for them alone, such as the minister for strategic affairs, the minister for intelligence and atomic energy, the minister for citizens’ services and the deputy minister for the advancement of youth, students and women.) Under the new bill, a government wishing to appoint more than 19 ministers would have to obtain 70 votes in the Knesset to do so.

State budget

The bill would allow a government to continue functioning even if the Knesset fails to pass a budget by establishing an automatic monthly budget of 1/12 of the previous year’s budget. It also extends the grace period for a new government to pass a budget from 45 days under current law to 100 days.

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