Netanyahu said set to lower electoral threshold to protect right-wing majority

Panel reportedly to convene Sunday to discuss lowering 3.25% threshold, making it easier for smaller parties to enter Knesset, amid fear right-wing splits will hurt PM’s base

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Education Minister Naftali Bennett on November 13, 2017, in the Knesset. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Education Minister Naftali Bennett on November 13, 2017, in the Knesset. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government is reportedly preparing to lower the electoral threshold ahead of the April elections, amid fear that growing divisions within the political right could leave some parties out of the next Knesset.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party intend as early as Sunday to start promoting the lowering of the threshold, which currently requires parties to win at least four seats to enter the 120-seat parliament, Hadashot TV reported.

Netanyahu and his allies are said to be very concerned by no fewer than seven right-wing parties announcing a Knesset bid, the latest being The New Right, or HaYamin HeHadash, a new party announced on Saturday by ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who will break away from the Jewish Home party.

There have been previous unsuccessful efforts to lower the threshold, which in 2014 was raised to 3.25 percent to prevent small Arab and far-right religious parties from being elected. The Arab Israeli parties bypassed that hurdle by uniting to form the Joint List.

Previously, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri had opposed lowering the election threshold since that would have made it easier for his rival Eli Yishai to enter the parliament with the far-right Yachad party.

Shas leaders Eli Yishai (left) and Aryeh Deri during a Shas party meeting in the Knesset on February 18, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Shas leaders Eli Yishai (left) and Aryeh Deri during a Shas party meeting in the Knesset on February 18, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Now, Deri will reportedly agree to promote the initiative since Yishai is expected to merge his party with Jewish Home and enter the Knesset anyway.

The move requires approval by the opposition in a joint committee that decides on such issues. The various factions of the Joint List could support it since it would mean they can split back into their former parties, as may the Meretz left-wing party, which in some polls is seen teetering on the edge of the election threshold.

The committee is expected to convene on Sunday, according to Hadashot, and the coalition could reportedly try to promote the move even without an agreement with the opposition.

Bennett and Shaked announced the formation of their new party, “The New Right,” in a surprise press conference on Saturday evening in Tel Aviv.

The new party would be based on “full partnership” between Orthodox and secular Israelis, the two said, explaining that while Jewish Home had become a “significant force” in government over the past six years, its influence had waned as Netanyahu came to feel their base of Orthodox Zionists were “in his pocket.”

The Orthodox Bennett and secular Shaked would serve as the co-leaders of the new party, they announced.

MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli announced she would join the new party as well, a key acquisition as it brings the splitters to more than one-third of the original faction — Jewish Home has eight seats in the Knesset — and thus guarantees the new party public campaign funding in the April 9 race.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, August 30, 2016. (Abir Sultan, Pool via AP)

Jewish Home responded Sunday by unexpectedly welcoming the move, saying in a statement from director general Nir Orbach that the party “thanks Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked for five years of accomplishments for the people of Israel. We believe that there are still great accomplishments awaiting them as leaders of the right-wing camp.”

The party said it would “prepare for our future” without Bennett and Shaked, and would present a Knesset list of “worthy and talented public figures who will continue to work for the people of Israel in the 21st Knesset.”

The New Right is reportedly planning to join forces with its old Jewish Home faction after the elections in a bid to strengthen the far-right bloc in the Knesset. According to a report Sunday by the public broadcaster Kan, the two parties will run separately on the April 9 ballot, but unite afterward as a single bloc for the coalition talks with the expected winner of the race, Netanyahu and his Likud party.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Education Minister Nafatli Bennett (not pictured) announce the establishment of The New Right party at a press conference in Tel Aviv on December 29, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Bennett and Shaked explained their move on Saturday evening by accusing the Likud-led right of failing to live up to its right-wing ideals.

Bennett specifically attacked Netanyahu for stating only weeks ago that due to Israel’s sensitive security situation it would be irresponsible to go to early elections, and sending confidants to the religious leaders of religious Zionism in a successful bid to force Bennett and Shaked to nix their plan to resign from the government over Netanyahu’s refusal to appoint Bennett defense minister.

Netanyahu called early elections last week.

Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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