The agreement reached among the major prospective coalition partners in the next government to raise the minimum percentage of the vote that parties would be required to get for representation in the Knesset could pose a major challenge to the country's Arab parties.
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As the final details are put together on a coalition agreement for a new government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the terms agreed upon by the major parties is that the minimum electoral threshold would be raised from 2 percent to 4 percent as of the next election. The change would require an amendment to the law.
Support for two Arab parties, the United Arab List-Ta'al and Balad, along with Hadash, which is a joint Arab-Jewish party, would be expected to reach right around a new 4 percent threshold if, as occurred in the most recent elections on January 22, they ran separately. The change could pose a threat to the extent of Arab representation in future elections. If they wish to head that off, the leaders of the Arab parties will need to adjust to the new reality sooner rather than later.
On the Arab street, greater unity among the Arab parties would be welcomed. Polls taken before the most recent election clearly indicate such. The demand for unification of the Arab parties came from Arab intellectuals and public figures and received additional backing from the street amid concern that the right wing might increase its power on the Israeli political scene. The interest in unification on the Arab-Israeli political scene was also reinforced by the winds of change in the Arab world. The expectation has been that, rather than bypassing the Israeli Arab parties, the Arab Spring would inject new blood into the system and result either in the merger of parties or their maintaining their autonomy but running on a joint ticket.
Proponents of unity say that the Arab parties as well as the Arab-Jewish Hadash party, have taken a similar stance on the vast majority of their positions and on legislation so, they argue, there is nothing preventing their closer cooperation in the Knesset and even their running on a joint ticket. In the most recent electoral campaign, however, the parties did not manage to smooth over their differences. In Hadash, opposition to such unity was apparent in internal pressures to bring in new blood and in party chairman Mohammed Barakeh's proposal for a rotation arrangement for the party's No. 1 and No. 2 candidates. For its part, Balad was insistent on one joint Arab slate rather than two, as Hadash had proposed. And United Arab List-Ta'al was not overly enthusiastic about closing ranks in light of data that showed them leading in the polls among Arab voters.
Within the parties themselves, particularly Hadash, it was argued that unity was not necessarily an effective way to increase Arab representation in the Knesset but quite the opposite. The argument was made that unity would lower the level of enthusiasm of party activists and not bring out voters in large numbers.
Unity, it was said, was not a sure prescription for electoral success as was shown by the joint ticket on which Netanyahu's Likud party and Yisrael Beiteinu ran. They suffered a substantial drop in support in January, as was predicted by the opinion polls.
Nonetheless, the reality of the 4 percent threshold, if it is passed into law, could force the Arab parties to unify their efforts. Calls are being made now to prepare the ground for such unity and to lower the level of biting criticism among the Arab parties. It has been suggested that party activists be prepared for such a new reality and that a joint political platform be developed that would address the needs of all facets of Israeli Arab society from the issue of national identity to equal rights.
On its face, the proposed higher electoral threshold might be seen as seeking to lower Arab representation in the Knesset, but in the end, it could be good for the Arab Israeli community.