Major electoral reform bill delayed by Hatnua concerns

Major electoral reform bill delayed by Hatnua concerns

Party’s faction chair objects to clauses that would make it harder to topple sitting government, saying, ‘What’s so urgent?’

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)

One of the current Knesset session’s crowning achievements-to-be, the electoral reform bills advanced by Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu, may have to wait a few months.

The two central coalition partners had hoped to pass a historic electoral reform — increasing the threshold for election to the Knesset and raising the bar for parliamentary no-confidence votes — by the time the Knesset enters its fall recess on August 1, just two weeks away.

But “what’s the rush?” wondered Hatnua faction chair MK Meir Sheetrit in a conversation with The Times of Israel Sunday. “What’s so urgent” that such a significant reform “has to pass by July 31?”

If the bill fails to become law by the end of the month, it will have to wait until the Knesset returns for its winter session in October to attempt to advance the bill.

The reform is being advanced in two bills initiated by MKs Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid) and David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu) that will be brought to the Knesset floor as a single government-sponsored bill in the coming months. The reform would double the minimum electoral threshold from two percent of the total votes cast in an election to 4%, an increase that would reduce the ability of small, fringe parties to win a place in parliament and hold inordinate sway over larger coalition partners.

The reform would also limit cabinets to 19 ministers (including the prime minister), change the law that forces a government to resign if it fails to pass a national budget, and make it more difficult for opposition parties to initiate no-confidence votes that can topple a sitting government.

In meetings on the subject over the past week, Hatnua MKs voiced concerns about several significant provisions of the reform, which has already received the support of the government and most coalition partners.

The key change — the increase in the electoral threshold — has Hatnua’s full support, according to Sheetrit.

“Personally, I’d rather see it rise to 5%. I presented a bill twice in the last Knesset to do that, and once in the Knesset before that,” he noted.

But Hatnua was concerned about the limits placed on no-confidence motions, especially the provision in Rotem’s bill that would require 65 MKs to vote in support of a no-confidence motion in order to topple the government. A majority in the 120-seat Knesset is 61, which is the current level required for a no-confidence motion to pass.

“A government that doesn’t have the support of the majority of the Knesset can’t exist,” Sheetrit insisted. “If you can raise the threshold to 65, why not to 70? 80? A simple majority is the standard in the entire parliamentary world.”

Sheetrit has already succeeded in removing a provision that would require 61 MKs’ signatures merely to bring a no-confidence motion to the floor, a provision that was removed from the Rotem bill in an earlier draft.

Hatnua also opposed the proposal to allow the prime minister to dismiss the Knesset — a move that would lead to elections within 90 days — without the approval of the president, as is currently required.

And finally, both the Hoffman and Rotem bills stipulate that a government will be able to continue governing even if it fails to pass a budget bill in the Knesset. That provision, too, has raised the ire of Hatnua MKs.

“Failing to pass a budget is equivalent to a no-confidence vote,” Sheetrit insists, and noted that “no government has ever fallen for failing to pass a budget” — though some prime ministers, facing the prospect of a loss in the Knesset, have preferred to go to elections before a budget vote could take place.

Sheetrit said he agreed with Labor MK Isaac Herzog, who commented last week that the fact that a government must fall if it fails to pass a budget “is why governments pass budgets. If you take that away, they won’t pass budgets.”

Hatnua’s new concerns mean the long-sought electoral reform may face an unexpectedly long road in the current Knesset, where many observers believe it has a stronger chance of passing than at any time in the past.

But Hatnua has also affirmed its support for other provisions contained in the larger reform plan, including requiring that the opposition have an agreed-upon alternate candidate for prime minister in order to pass a no-confidence vote. Hatnua also supports Rotem’s idea of concentrating each month’s no-confidence motions, which currently take up several hours of Knesset deliberations each week, into a single day each month.

Sheetrit promises Hatnua’s concerns won’t be the reason the bill fails to pass. In fact, he said, Hatnua wanted to expand the bill’s reach, and would propose merging it with a bill he is proposing that would stipulate that the leader of any party that receives 45% of the votes cast in an election would automatically become prime minister.

If nobody reached that threshold — it hasn’t been reached since the 1970s — a second round of voting would be held between the two frontrunners. The new proposal would offer the advantages of the direct-election law of the 1990s, where the electorate chose a premier directly, without creating a dual ballot — one for PM, one for a party list — that strengthened small, sectoral parties at the expense of political stability.

While he believes the bill will pass, the grizzled Sheetrit, who has served in the Knesset since 1981 and as a cabinet minister in six ministries, doesn’t think it will have the longed-for effect.

“None of these proposals will have a dramatic effect [on Israeli governance] until we have direct regional elections for at least most MKs,” he says.

“Since the 1980s,” he recalled, “when Labor and Likud together had 95 seats, I tried to convince prime ministers [Menachem] Begin, [Yitzhak] Shamir, [Shimon] Peres and [Yitzhak] Rabin. I said, ‘Let’s have a [political] ceasefire and institute local elections [for Knesset].’ But they didn’t trust each other, so it never happened.”

While the government is expected to rejoice loudly in the eventual passage of the reform, it won’t tackle “the big problem in Israeli politics, which is that the public doesn’t elect the MK. The public elects a sack, and it doesn’t know if it’s filled with potatoes or onions. You vote for a party, but a party leader can put his horse on the list,” he said.

MKs are answerable to those who place them on the party list, he noted. “Some MKs are answerable only to their party leader. Others parties have primaries, and some choose their lists with central committees. That’s why you see Likud MKs running around between bar mitzvahs of central committee members, and telling them how smart they are.”

Sheetrit’s own Hatnua saw its current list drawn up by its founder, and the current justice minister, Tzipi Livni.

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