Knesset set to give initial approval for reform that would slash number of parties
Bill would increase the threshold for a party entering parliament, pushing Arab parties to unite or risk extinction; changes would also make governments harder to fell
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.
A major reform intended to strengthen a government’s prospects for serving out its term without being felled by a fractious Knesset is likely to clear its first major Knesset hurdle on Wednesday.
The reform also includes raising the threshold of votes a party must win to enter the Knesset from 2% to 4%. 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 some such parties to unite with others or risk extinction.
The bill will 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 from an ever-shifting number in the low to mid-twenties (there are 22 ministries in the current cabinet, fewer than in other recent governments) 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. It’s time to change that reality and bring greater stability to Israeli governance, the reform’s proponents have said.
The changes bring proposed, especially the raising of the electoral threshold, will likely have a dramatic effect on the makeup of future governments, according to a study conducted for the Knesset Law Committee by the legal adviser of Israel’s Central Elections Commission.
The study, first publicized by political blogger Tal Schneider on Saturday, consisted of a simulation of what the current and past Knessets might look like if the electoral threshold were raised to 2.5%, 3%, 3.5% and 4%.
The results are dramatic. In the last Knesset, 12 parties made it past the 2% threshold. Raise the threshold to 4% and that number drops to just six parties. The current Knesset also has 12 parties, but would only have eight with a 4% threshold.
As the number of parties shrinks, the size of the larger parties grows significantly. In the current Knesset, Likud-Beytenu’s joint list would grow from 31 Knesset seats to 35; Labor, Shas and Yesh Atid would each gain two seats; Hatnua and Jewish Home one. The governing coalition would thus grow from the current 68 seats to 76, beyond the ability of, for example, Jewish Home to bring it down by leaving the government in response to a hypothetical West Bank withdrawal.
That increased stability is the chief impulse behind the new reform.
But the reform also faces withering criticism from several quarters. Perhaps the most impassioned comes from Arab MKs, who believe they are witnessing an unceremonious expulsion of the Arab sector from Israel’s parliament. As the Central Elections Commission study shows, there are only three parties that drop out of the Knesset entirely in both simulations – that is, that passed the 2% threshold in both the current and last Knesset, but would have failed to pass the 4% — Ra’am-Ta’al, Hadash and Balad. The “Arab parties.”
“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) told a Knesset Law Committee debate on Sunday, and repeatedly called the committee’s chairman and one of the reform’s chief sponsors, Yisrael Beytenu MK David Rotem, a racist.
“You need to prove to your voters that you’re harming the Arabs,” Zahalke charged. “It helps you [at the ballot box] when Arabs are hurt.”
“And [Labor MK Isaac] Herzog, he’s also a racist?” retorted MK Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid), a second key sponsor of the reform. “Labor and Kadima MKs raised a similar proposal in the previous Knesset. Even [former] MK [Avshalom] Vilan from Meretz called for it in the past for similar reasons.”
Herzog briefly sponsored a bill earlier this year that would have raised the electoral threshold to 3%, enough to leave two of the three Arab parties out of the current Knesset.
“Let them unite,” Hoffman told the Times of Israel Monday. Together, the three Arab parties hold 11 seats, more than double the number they need to pass a 4% threshold.
MK Ahmad Tibi (Ra’am-Ta’al) himself has been calling for years for the fractured Arab lists to unite so that they might better fight for the Arab sector in the Knesset, a coalition spokesperson pointed out.
But Zahalke blasted the idea. “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.”
Partly to ease the Arab parties’ concerns, the bill includes a stipulation that would allow separate parties that run joint lists for the Knesset to split once they enter the Knesset. Several parties in the current Knesset, including Meretz, Likud-Beytenu, United Torah Judaism and Jewish Home, are joint lists of two or more distinct registered parties. The Arab slate could function in the same fashion, supporters of the reform have suggested.
The reform faces another criticism: “lost” votes. According to the CES study, only some 104,000 votes were lost to parties that failed to enter parliament in the last Knesset, and some 269,000 in the current one. With a 4% threshold, that number would rise to 723,000 in the last Knesset (out of 3.4 million total votes cast) and 697,000 in the current one (out of 3.8 million votes).
It’s a spectacular rise, though it may be driven partly by the CES study’s methodological difficulties.
As the study’s author, CES legal advisor Din Livne, notes, “it is reasonable to assume that if the electoral threshold had been raised ahead of the elections [to the last and current Knessets], voting patterns would have been affected. Without deep surveys and research, it is impossible to predict how a change in the threshold would affect voting patterns.”
For example, the 269,000 voters who voted in 2012 for lists that failed to enter the Knesset, including the combined 52,000 for the pot-legalization party Green Leaf and the environmentalist Greens, or the 74,000 who voted for the two Shas competitors Am Shalem and Koach Lehashpia, would likely have voted for larger parties had voters known that a minimum of 152,000 votes would be required to pass the threshold.
The reform plan will also limit the opposition’s ability to propose almost limitless numbers of no-confidence motions in the Knesset plenum. Instead of seeing hours wasted each week on no-confidence votes and their attendant speeches — last Monday, the Knesset voted down no fewer than seven no-confidence motions — the reform would create a single day each month during which all no-confidence motions would be put forth in a single Knesset meeting. The prime minister would have to be present for the duration, guaranteeing the opposition the audience it craves without wasting dozens of hours each month in the plenum.
And finally, critics point to the haste with which the reform is being advanced. It began its legislative life as two distinct bills advanced separately by Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu some two months ago. The bills passed the government’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation separately, were unified in committee over the past two weeks, and then were divided anew into two bills, an amendment to constitutional Basic Laws and a regular bill. That confusing process and the shifting content and structure of the legislation have led to a great deal of confusion, with critics sometimes finding themselves blasting some of the bills’ stipulations days after they were removed.
That confusion has some MKs, including Hatnua faction chair Meir Sheetrit, wondering, “What’s the rush?”
“This won’t go into effect until the next election,” another coalition MK told The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity. “Why does it have to pass its first reading so quickly?”
The answer, the MK suggested, was that Yisrael Beytenu and Yesh Atid eagerly seek the legislative feather in their cap, the ability “to show voters they were doing something in the first session of the new Knesset.”
That first session will end on Wednesday. According to the office of Coalition Chairman Yariv Levin, the reform will come up for its first reading that day, where it is expected to pass.
It then must pass through the Knesset Law Committee once more before being brought for a final vote to the Knesset floor. Those last two stages will only take place at least a month after the Knesset returns from its summer recess in October in order to give the opposition additional time to study the reform.
With peace talks underway in Washington, a referendum Basic Law being pushed forward by Likud and Jewish Home that will ensure a popular vote will be needed for any Israeli withdrawal from territory and dramatic austerity cuts that are slated to pass by Tuesday morning, it’s been a busy few weeks in the Knesset. But through it all, relatively unnoticed in the hubbub, a major constitutional change has been wending its way through the legislative process. Its ramifications are still unclear, even as it enjoys a clear majority for passage. Its passage in its first reading on Wednesday guarantees a raucous fall session, when the reform is more likely to get the attention it deserves.