By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Electoral reform has been on the agenda in Israel for a very long time. People abroad, even more than in Israel, argue that the two-party system of the United States, or at least fewer political parties like in Canada or the UK, would make it easier to govern. Though in view of the perennial tensions between the US President and Congress, I’m not sure that everybody agrees, but it’s quite obvious that the proliferation of parties often gives a handful of Members of Knesset a disproportionate amount of power.
One way of changing that is to increase the minimum threshold of eligibility. At present any party that gets 2% of the popular vote gets two seats in the Knesset (out of 120). The larger coalition parties wanted to increase the minimum to 4%. The compromise said to be on the table settles for 3.25% which would yield four mandates. Several parties in the current Knesset wouldn’t pass that threshold.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that a number of small parties that have made an important contribution to Israel would now be excluded. Under the new proposals, for example, none of the Arab parties would get in (though between them they have about 10 Knesset members, I believe). Needless to say, their representatives see this as an attempt to deprive Israel’s Arabs of parliamentary representation.
Supporters of the new proposal, on the other hand, argue that the small parties should amalgamate or at least have joint lists. After all, not all US Republicans hold the same views on all matters – think of the Tea Party faction. And not all Canadian Conservatives are of the same opinion – think of the red or pink Tories.
Opponents of the new proposal say that the ideological divisions between the Arab parties are so deep that joint lists would be impossible. If they were to be represented, they’d have to come together with like-minded “Jewish” parties, e.g. the left wing Meretz and its left-wing Arab equivalent. After all, there’re now Arabs who vote for “Jewish” parties (including the ultra-Orthodox Shas!) and Jews who vote for Arab parties. Over the years, Arabs have been elected on “Jewish” lists and Jews on Arab lists.
Probably an added reason why the Arab parties are opposed to the proposed reform is because Avigdor Lieberman is in favor. He’s suspected as opposing anything to do with Arabs and would like to see them elsewhere than in Israel. That’s why some Arabs see this more as a ploy than much needed reform.
Perhaps the main reason why Lieberman favors the changes has to do with his own ambitions. By eliminating small parties, the larger ones would gain more mandates. As his Yisrael Beiteinu “lives” with Likud (formal marriage may happen in due course), this would be in his interest. In fact, he and Prime Minister Netanyahu are said to have been in favor of the 4% threshold, but Tzipi Livni persuaded them to modify their stance. Though, as things are at the moment her own party wouldn’t be at risk (though her previous one, Kadima would), she may have acted in her capacity of Minister of Justice.
Nothing is uncomplicated in Israeli political life. Even the reasonable proposal to do away with small parties that bedevil the parliamentary system and make for difficult coalition governments, has a downside in that it may disenfranchise minorities, especially the Arabs. As strange as it may seem, therefore, the status quo may, on balance, turn out to be preferable to its alternatives.