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Analysis

The threshold of political pain: How a tiny reform radicalized Israeli politics

A seemingly small change to election rules passed in 2014 has backfired, empowering extreme parties and playing a central role in producing our belligerent and deadlocked reality

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

The Central Elections Committee counts ballots from soldiers and absentee voters at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 10, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
The Central Elections Committee counts ballots at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 10, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

By Election Day on November 1, Israel will have endured five elections in just 43 months. One might be forgiven for concluding that the Israeli electoral system is essentially broken. It seems to fail at the most basic duties of a political system, such as creating a viable government.

Observers have pointed to a great many culprits for Israel’s hardening partisanship and political instability: the populist anti-globalization politics on the march throughout the developed world, knock-on effects of the Palestinian impasse, the opposing bloc’s “politics of hate” or “radicalization.”

There may be some truth to all these arguments, but there’s a simpler explanation that connects the dots more directly and suggests there may be ways to mitigate and even reverse these trends. It looks to the system itself, to how it mediates interests and channels political power. And it puts the onus on a seemingly minor reform passed by the Knesset in 2014 that increased the vote threshold for entering the Knesset from 2% to 3.25%.

The reform passed in the Knesset relatively easily. Its purpose, as articulated by the bill’s sponsors at the time, was to reduce the government’s dependence on tiny, marginal factions and thus increase stability and governability.

There are too many parties jostling around in the Knesset, went the argument. Prime ministers must satisfy as many as half a dozen – in the case of the outgoing government, eight! – separate factions to keep the government alive. A dozen factions might negotiate over any piece of legislation. This complexity and dependence on small parties warped decision-making and was a major source of political instability. Simple governance had been rendered nigh impossible by the sheer messiness of it all.

The threshold reform was decreed “racist” by politicians from the Arab parties and “anti-democratic” by politicians from the Jewish far-right, but these complaints were generally dismissed (including by this writer) as instinctive opposition to healthy change by politicians who had benefited from a bad system.

File: New Right co-leaders Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett address supporters at their campaign headquarters in Bnei Brak at the end of election day, April 9, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Most Arab-majority parties drew between 2% and 4% of the vote and so were threatened by the change. Most far-right Jewish parties drew less than 2%; the increase seemingly put the Knesset far beyond their reach. But, explained the reformers, that only meant they’d have to join with factions outside the confines of their narrow ideological camp, a requirement that would force them to moderate their views and, ultimately, strengthen their representation in parliament.

The Arab parties insisted the reform was a thinly veiled attempt by the rightist Yisrael Beytenu party (which co-sponsored the final bill) to reduce Arab political representation. But that theory was belied by the support it enjoyed even on the liberal and progressive end of the spectrum. President Isaac Herzog, then a senior Labor party lawmaker, had proposed an even steeper increase to 5% a few years earlier.

For most of the bill’s supporters, including the political scientists who championed it and the liberal political factions who voted for it, the intent was wholesome. If the threshold were increased, they insisted, Israel’s cacophonous, ungovernable politics would transform into a simpler, more moderate and more stable system.

Best-laid plans

It didn’t quite work out that way.

“A reform that was supposed to free us from imaginary electoral instability has brought down upon our heads a very real electoral instability,” according to Dr. Shany Mor, a lecturer at Reichman University’s Institute for Liberty and Responsibility and an adjunct fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Mor’s doctorate at Oxford University dealt with political representation. He spoke to The Times of Israel last week.

Shany Mor (Israel Democracy Institute)

The higher threshold, he argued recently in the Hebrew-language magazine Liberal, has wrought the opposite of its intended purpose, destabilizing and radicalizing Israeli politics.

To understand why, one must journey into the weeds of the past 43 months of deadlock. At journey’s end lies a cautionary tale about the hubris and pitfalls that accompany attempts by even the most eminent political scientists to solve political problems by altering the electoral system.

The current crisis began in April 2019 when the New Right party led by Naftali Bennett won a maddening 3.24% of the vote, one one-hundredth of a percentage point short of the threshold, a vote tally then recalculated downwards to 3.22%. At the same time, the joint Ra’am-Balad list, uniting the Islamist and nationalist-secularist parties of the Arab electorate, cleared the threshold by only a slightly higher margin than New Right’s miss, winning 3.33% of the vote, just 8 hundredths of a point above the threshold.

The two slates, one successful, the other failed, were separated by barely 5,000 votes. Had either crossed the line in the other direction – New Right passed or Ra’am-Balad fallen — then Benjamin Netanyahu, who was one seat short of a majority, could have formed a government and avoided the chaos of the past three years.

Before 2014, no action took place at the threshold. Since then, all elections have been decided at the threshold

It was a clarifying moment, especially for Netanyahu.

“Before 2014, no action took place at the threshold. Since then, all elections have been decided at the threshold,” notes Mor.

The threshold was set high enough to force small parties to unify on the theory that this would weaken the influence of each individual small faction. But the parties didn’t unify as quickly as expected, and elections came to be decided by which small factions avoided the grim fate that waited at the cutoff.

Instead of reducing their importance, the new threshold transformed the tiniest factions into the pivot of every ensuing election. Victory for the largest parties became dependent on the fate of the smallest. A slight drop in Arab turnout or increase in right-wing turnout would, by the merciless logic of the new threshold, decide the fate of national politics.

And so Likud retooled its campaigns to focus on those margins: Intensive efforts were launched to depress the Arab vote and to rescue far-right Jewish votes from oblivion. Once-untouchable extremists on the Jewish right were brought into the fold, from the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit to the homophobic Noam. Instead of freeing the larger parties from the burden of marginal players, those margins were empowered. Campaigns on both sides became obsessed with preventing a recurrence of New Right’s April 2019 failure.

(It should be noted: After Likud’s anti-Arab campaigns backfired, sparking a massive protest turnout in Arab towns, the party changed tack, sought to improve its image in the Arab community and tried to benefit, even if only a little, from voters unmoored by their disillusionment with the Arab parties. In a deadlocked race, every little bit counts. The tactic may have flipped, but the basic strategic focus on the margins remains intact.)

And as these margins grew in importance, the mainstream radicalized.

Ayman Odeh and Balad, Netanyahu and the Kahanists

At the broadest, simplest level, Arab politics in Israel are divided between two overarching impulses. On the one side, greater integration into Israeli society; on the other, a greater emphasis on Palestinian identity and the Palestinian cause. (This is of course a massive oversimplification. Most Arab voters straddle this integrationist-nationalist divide in complex ways. But it is nevertheless an important underlying tension without which Arab politics in Israel cannot be understood.)

Joint List party chairman Ayman Odeh seen at the party headquarters in the city of Shfaram, on election night, March 23, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

When he first came to the fore of Arab politics in Israel, Hadash leader Ayman Odeh spoke of himself as an advocate of reconciliation and integration. He positioned himself as a moderating force in the fraught Arab-Jewish political encounter – until, that is, the Arab parties were forced by the threshold reform to unify ahead of the 2015 election.

Jewish Israelis struggle to distinguish between Hadash and Balad. When dealing with Hebrew-language media and Jewish politics, they use nearly identical rhetoric in support of the Palestinians or in criticizing Israel. They tend to be interviewed interchangeably in Hebrew media as a function of this rhetorical overlap. But as one Hadash activist once put it to this writer, a fundamental difference divides them: Even when they seem to be standing in the same place, one party faces toward Israeli society, and the other faces away.

Forced into a shared electoral slate, the parties could no longer represent this basic divide of Arab politics. Where the advocates of a higher threshold expected unification to serve as a moderating influence, in practice it was Balad, not Hadash — the relative radical, not the more moderate faction — that established the ideological baseline required to keep the union intact.

Odeh’s rhetoric and politics very quickly grew more belligerent. Balad, the most fervently Palestinian-nationalist and explicitly anti-Zionist of the Arab parties – and also the least popular, the only one that struggled to clear even the pre-2014 threshold of 2% — had been granted a veto over Arab politics writ large that it hadn’t possessed before the threshold reform.

The same thing happened on the far-right, and for the same reason. If he wanted to ensure no right-wing votes were lost to the higher threshold, Netanyahu had little choice but to work to unify and, critics complained, launder political forces that he’d outspokenly condemned only a short time before.

New Right’s failure in April 2019 wasn’t the first instance of a right-wing faction felled by the higher cutoff. In the 2015 election, the first race after the threshold increase, the far-right Yachad, an alliance of former Shas leader Eli Yishai and Otzma Yehudit, drew 2.97% of the vote, a quarter-point under the new threshold. Three Knesset seats’ worth of right-wing votes were lost. (The very fact that an ex-Shas leader could unite with Kahanists was itself a break with the past that drew condemnation within Haredi politics at the time. It was, of course, a result of the frightening new threshold.)

MK Itamar Ben Gvir (left) and MK Bezalel Smotrich of Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit register their party for the upcoming elections at the Knesset, September 14, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

That experience meant that even before New Right’s 2019 collapse, in the run-up to that election, Netanyahu was already hard at work attempting to secure far-right unity. He expended vast energy and time trying to negotiate a union of far-right factions Otzma Yehudit, Yachad, Tkuma and Jewish Home.

In April 2019, fewer than 2,000 votes missing from a tiny, marginal party cost Netanyahu the entire national race

New Right’s nail-bitingly close failure was thus more than a mere disappointment; it was Netanyahu’s worst-case scenario, presaged by Yachad’s 2015 fate, horrifyingly realized right before his very eyes. Fewer than 2,000 votes missing from a tiny, marginal party cost him the entire national race.

The Netanyahu who now paves a path to the Knesset for Kahanists is a traumatized Netanyahu, and the trauma is a direct consequence of a higher threshold sized precisely to the scale of the tiny factions it hoped to weaken but ended up empowering.

Over the next three years and four elections, Netanyahu would promise cabinet posts, budget money and even seats on Likud’s own Knesset list to far-rightist factions that agreed to join forces to avoid the threshold’s gaping maw.

It’s a basic rule of negotiations: The most strident party, the one more willing to walk away, is inevitably the one with the upper hand

And just as little Balad could dictate policy to the larger Hadash, the result was never the moderating of the radicals. At each new union, it was the radicals who would set the tone and agenda for the rest.

That should not have surprised the threshold reformers of 2014. It’s a basic rule of negotiations: The most strident party, the one more willing to walk away, is inevitably the one with the upper hand.

And this spiral may only worsen. According to polls, the center and left may soon experience the same trauma on their side of the spectrum.

It took Netanyahu five elections to finally force all the right-wing factions to unify or drop out of the race, but he managed it. The smallest faction in Netanyahu’s camp, United Torah Judaism, now polls at a comfortable seven seats.

Ayelet Shaked’s Jewish Home, which might be counted in Netanyahu’s corner – though Netanyahu himself says it isn’t – is the only rightist faction polling below the threshold.

But on the other side of the aisle, in Lapid’s camp (for want of a better term), some one-third of the seats hover near the cutoff. Ra’am, Hadash-Ta’al, Meretz and Labor routinely poll at 4, 4, 5 and 5 seats respectively.

If any fail to make it in, they will have handed Netanyahu his victory.

The result of this “action at the threshold,” as Mor calls it, is a cycle of hardening partisanship and a loss of parliamentary flexibility.

As small parties unite – now on the right, and soon possibly on the center and left – the larger alliances discover they must cater to their most radical elements to survive, and the large mainstream parties discover they must abide by the new radicalism to keep those once-marginal players on their side. Before the threshold increase, Labor and Yesh Atid could sit relatively comfortably in Netanyahu-led governments in 2009 and 2013 respectively and Shas could sit with Labor in Ehud Olmert’s government in 2006.

No longer.

The more influence the radicals wield, the less the system can tolerate such cross-partisan cooperation and the moderation it both requires and fosters. The compromises inherent to a functioning parliamentary system become untenable. Israel’s politics are becoming inflexible, and as a result less stable.

As Mor puts it, the higher threshold ended up “entrenching a polarization in Israeli politics that hadn’t been there before.”

The case for humility

Political scientists and other experts assured Israelis that the threshold reform would reduce the number of factions, stabilize the political system, moderate the political margins and increase the effectiveness of Israeli governments and legislators. In practice, it has done the opposite. It empowered the radicals and made compromise all but impossible.

It turns out the old messiness that so offended political scientists and reformists was, in the clarity of hindsight, one of the great strengths of the Israeli political system, granting it the flexibility, stability and moderation now lost in the fallout of the threshold reform.

There are few Israeli political traditions more venerably and authentically Israeli than a reform that ends up perpetrating the disastrous opposite of its intended goal.

In 2020, Netanyahu introduced into the Israeli constitutional system the new “parity” government whose two halves each had a veto power over the other. It was part of his bid to tear apart center-left Blue and White by drawing its leader Benny Gantz into a unity government. The result was the opposite of what Netanyahu intended. Without the parity mechanism, with its limited premier and mutual vetoes, the center-left could not have put its trust in a right-winger like Bennett for prime minister. In his careless bid to divide his enemies, Netanyahu created the very institution without which they could not have united against him.

That’s the most recent example. The most famous might be the direct-election law. In 1992, the Knesset changed election rules to allow Israelis to directly choose their prime minister in special ballots cast alongside their party vote. Political scientists said the change would empower the new prime minister in the messy coalition negotiations that followed Election Day, weakening narrow sectoral interests and stabilizing the political system. (Sound familiar?) The result was the opposite. Many voters who’d stuck by the larger parties to secure their preferred prime minister now felt free, after casting a direct ballot for premier, to cast their party ballot for a narrower sectoral faction that more specifically represented them. They abandoned the major parties in droves.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) sits next to Defence Minister Ehud Barak during an economics conference in Tel Aviv, December 2008. (Yossi Zeliger/FLASH90)

Yitzhak Rabin won the 1992 election with 44 seats for his Labor party. Just seven years later, Ehud Barak won the 1999 election with a Labor reduced to just 26 seats. Barak, unlike his predecessor Rabin, was an unassailable direct-elected prime minister, at least on paper. In practice, his negotiating position in the Knesset was weakened to the point of paralysis. The reform had backfired. Prime ministers found themselves conceding more public funds and policy priorities to small sectoral parties than before.

The reform also pumped new life into the country’s most divisive culture wars as those sectoral parties attracted hundreds of thousands of unmoored second-ballot votes once locked into the large parties. Sephardi-Haredi Shas soared to 17 seats; militantly secularist Shinui swelled to 15. By the time the direct election law was overturned by an exhausted political system in 2003, Israeli politics had become more starkly divided, more belligerent and less governable.

The list of similar fiascos is long. The country still suffers from the aftereffects of reforms to party primaries and to municipal politicking from the 1970s and 80s.

There’s nothing quite so terrifying as a well-meaning reformer coming forward with a clever way to “simplify” and “stabilize” Israeli politics.

“Beware those extolling the virtues of presidentialism or regional representation,” cautions Mor, or proposals to impose term limits on prime ministers, require 70 MKs (instead of the current simple majority) to dissolve parliament, or automatically hand the leader of the largest party the power to form a government. There are rational arguments in favor of all these changes, but no way to reliably predict what they will do on the ground. Things can get much worse.

A political system is a phenomenally complex machine. It’s nigh impossible to know how a tweak at one end will propagate through the system and what it might produce at the other.

But there’s a deeper reason than mere complexity for the persistent failures of so many earnest reformers: They habitually misunderstand the strengths and purpose of the thing they seek to change.

Reducing political messiness and conflict is not a recipe for stability and moderation

As Mor puts it, the old parliamentary wheeling and dealing “and the constant need for compromise is a good way for a young democracy in a divided society to operate. Politics isn’t about removing or reducing conflict but about managing it. All the things everyone wants to erase from our system are exactly what keeps violence out of politics.”

Reducing messiness and conflict is not a recipe for stability and moderation; it’s a recipe for the innate divides in Israeli society expressing themselves in less healthy and constructive ways through radicalization and, eventually, violence.

A better direction

What’s to be done? Must Israelis despair of the very possibility of reform?

If this analysis is correct, a better direction for improving the system might be to lean into its under-appreciated strengths, to embrace the messiness that so offends reformers and outside observers. If reducing representation by forced unification ends up radicalizing the system, perhaps the opposite can be achieved by expanding representation. Expand and empower the Knesset, lower the threshold back down to 2%, bring more marginal forces into play rather than fewer — and you just might shrink the power of the radicals back to their natural size.

But more than any specific reform, the main lesson of this experience of interminable deadlock and growing radicalization might simply be to respect the structures already in place, to treat them as more than accidents waiting for a clever outsider to remold in their image. Consider what will be lost with any change, and not just what might, in an irresponsibly optimistic assessment of one’s predictive powers, be gained.

“Primum non nocere,” goes the wise counsel taught to healthcare workers the world over. First, do no harm.

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