PM seeking to lower electoral threshold, after raising it before last election

Move could help Netanyahu cobble together government following the next national ballot and prevent right-wing votes from being wasted

Raoul Wootliff is the producer and occasional host of the Times of Israel Daily Briefing podcast.

Counting ballots from soldiers and absentees at the Knesset in Jerusalem, a day after the general elections, March 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Counting ballots from soldiers and absentees at the Knesset in Jerusalem, a day after the general elections, March 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said he was seeking backing to lower the electoral threshold for parties to enter the Knesset in the next election, just four years after it was raised by his own government before the last national ballot.

According to the proposal being pushed by Netanyahu, the electoral threshold would be lowered from its current 3.25 percent to 2.75%, requiring parties to gain around 15,000 fewer votes to ensure seats in the parliament.

“I’m raising the possibility of lowering the electoral threshold by half a percent. This must be with the agreement of everyone. Without such agreement we won’t move forward on the matter,” Netanyahu told coalition leaders, according to a statement from the Likud party.

The electoral threshold was raised from 1% to 1.5% in 1988, to 2% in 2003, and up to its current 3.25% in March 2014. Advocates of raising the threshold argue that it stabilizes parliament by filtering out smaller parties that complicate governing coalitions. Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beytenu party, championed the 2014 bill to change the threshold, saying it would create “a government that can make decisions and is not busy performing maintenance chores on the coalition all of the time.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman at a meeting in the Knesset, on November 25, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But critics argued the move was meant to prevent the three Arab parties in the Knesset, which at the time each barely passed the threshold, from being elected. In response to the change, however, those parties — Balad, Hadash, and Ra’am-Ta’al — ran together in the 2015 elections as the Joint List and garnered 13 seats in total, two more than the 11 they collectively held previously.

In a similar move, MK Tzipi Livni joined her Hatnua party to the larger Labor party, creating the Zionist Union, which secured 24 seats, making it the second-largest Knesset faction.

Now, with a number of his coalition partners hovering around the electoral threshold in polls, lowering it could help Netanyahu cobble together another government following the next elections, which are currently scheduled for November 2019.

Netanyahu may also be trying to prevent the loss of right-wing votes, such as those that in the 2015 election went to Eli Yishai’s Yachad party.

Shas party leader MK Aryeh Deri (left) seen shaking hands with fellow Shas MK Eli Yishai, after a meeting in the Knesset aimed to heal their feud, October 30, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

In total, over 5.5 percent of votes cast in the elections went to parties that failed to cross the electoral threshold with more than half of those coming from the 124,984 votes cast for Yachad. Its inability to enter the Knesset also had an ironic consequence for the right: the subtraction of Yachad’s votes from the total of valid votes gave greater proportional weight to the votes received by left-wing Meretz party, ultimately bumping it up to five seats in the Knesset instead of the four it was initially projected to have won.

Previous objections to the move by the coalition Shas party, over the fact that it could boost its rival Yachad, are believed to have been removed given its poor performance in recent opinion polls which show Shas struggling to clear the current threshold.

Yishai, a former top Shas politician, broke away from the party after losing a bitter leadership battle with its current head, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri. He formed the Yachad party in December 2014 ahead of the 2015 national elections, but failed to clear the raised threshold, winning just 2.97% of the vote. Shas, under Deri, won seven seats.

Potential opposition from Yisrael Beytenu could also be neutralized due to its similar poor showing in recent polls.

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