Hatnua demands that electoral threshold rise be gradual

Party’s call for a two-stage hike, to 3% and then 4% across separate elections, pits it against larger coalition partners

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

MK Meir Sheetrit (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Meir Sheetrit (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A fight is brewing in the coalition over the government’s efforts to increase the electoral threshold each party must pass to enter the Knesset.

The current threshold of two percent of votes cast has enabled 12 parties to enter the Knesset. The government’s planned increase, to four percent, would cut one-third of the parties from the Knesset, including all three parties that represent primarily the Arab sector.

“You can’t wipe out so many parties in one go,” Hatnua faction chair MK Meir Sheetrit told The Times of Israel on Thursday. The party is demanding a staged increase, with a 3% threshold in the next election, and 4% for the following one.

“We’ve given up many things for the peace process,” Sheetrit noted, referring to the coalition deal which demands that each coalition partner support the others’ signature initiatives. Hatnua’s leader, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, is the cabinet minister in charge of the peace talks, and the chief advocate of those talks in the government.

“We’re giving up on many things. I don’t support the Referendum Bill [that would see any peace agreement be brought to a public referendum],” Sheetrit said, “but we voted for it in order to allow the peace process to move forward.”

Hatnua’s coalition partners “will have to compromise on 3%, and only then 4%,” he said.

With just six MKs in the 68-seat ruling majority, Hatnua is the smallest party in the coalition. But it may wield inordinate power in the electoral reform negotiations because it holds the deciding vote in the Knesset Law Committee, which is preparing the final version of the bill.

The committee is slated to meet eight times during the Knesset’s current recess, which ends in October, and to present a final version of the reform for a final vote in the Knesset plenum in November.

The committee’s six opposition MKs are expected to vote against: Moshe Mizrahi (Labor), Merav Michaeli (Labor), Jamal Zahalke (Balad), Ibrahim Sarsur (Ra’am-Ta’al), Uri Maklev (UTJ) and Avraham Michaeli (Shas).

Six coalition MKs are almost certain to vote for: coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud), committee chair and one of the bill’s key sponsors David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu), Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid), Adi Kol (Yesh Atid), Shuli Moalem (Jewish Home) and Orit Strock (Jewish Home).

The 13th committee member, Hatnua’s Elazar Stern, will hold the deciding vote.

The electoral threshold increase is a key initiative of both Yisrael Beytenu and Yesh Atid, both of which are standing by the demand for a 4% threshold.

A coalition source who asked not to be named blasted Hatnua’s stance. “They’re on the other side of every fight that happens in the coalition — on the ‘Stern Bill’ [that would have added additional electors to the body that chooses the chief rabbi], on the ‘Tzohar Bill’ [which would enable Israelis to register their marriage in any local rabbinate in Israel], on governance. They have to decide if they want to be part of the coalition or not.”

Sheetrit rejected the criticism, noting he was a sponsor of the Tzohar bill and has advocated increasing the electoral threshold for years, including presenting a bill in the last Knesset that would have raised the threshold to 5%.

The bill has also garnered bitter criticism from Arab MKs, who argue that it was “paternalistic” to force them to unite the three fractious parties that represent Arab Israelis. Balad’s Zahalke told the Knesset Law Committee in July that “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.’”

The reform bill would change more than the electoral threshold. Its provisions would also make it harder for opposition parties to pass no-confidence motions that topple the government and send the country to new elections. And it would 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.

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