Fight Over Vote Threshold Goes to Knesset as Opposition Cries 'Racism'

Prime Minister says raising entry level to parliament needed for 'governability.’

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The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee today begins its hearings on the bill to raise the percentage of votes that a party must win to enter the Knesset. Under the agreement reached last month between Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the threshold will be raised from its current 2 percent to 3.25 percent.

The move is causing arguments within the coalition, with Hatnuah ministers Tzipi Livni and Amir Peretz determined to oppose it and keep the hike in the threshold to only 3 percent. But a coalition source noted, “The chances of changing a decision by Lieberman are very low. He won’t go below 3.25 percent, he has a majority for the move, and the ability to negotiate with him on the matter is limited.”

The opposition is planning an aggressive struggle against the bill, which is liable to exclude from the next Knesset those parties supported by Arab voters – Balad, Hadash and the United Arab List-Ta’al – at least in their current configurations. An effort is being made to enlist opponents within Hatnuah and in Habayit Hayehudi’s National Union faction, headed by Uri Ariel, which might have trouble running independently in the next election if the threshold is raised.

“Hatnuah’s support for the bill would be an interesting thing,” an MK said yesterday. “In effect they are suggesting that the party commit political suicide. The chances of Hatnuah exceeding the threshold in the next election are not clear at the moment. If the polls show they are scratching at the threshold, they will have a hard time getting anywhere even if they try to negotiate a merger with another party, like Labor.”

The Law Committee hearings are expected to continue until at least Wednesday, at which point a vote will be taken. Today the heads of the opposition factions are holding a meeting to protest the raising of the threshold, while also launching a public campaign under the slogan, “It’s not governability, its racism” - “governability” being Lieberman and Netanyahu’s stated reason for putting the bill forward.

The original governability bill sponsored by Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu was split by the Law Committee into three separate bills: One regarding the amendment of Basic Laws that would change the procedure for no-confidence motions; another that alters the ability of parties to split into new factions and still get public funding; and a third bill to raise the electoral threshold, which requires an absolute 61-MK majority to pass.

The vote on raising the electoral threshold is expected in a few weeks, and according to one MK, “The vote will take place when the government knows that it definitely has 61 MKs sitting in the plenum, ready to vote.”

A political source said, “One of those who will profit most from raising the electoral threshold is actually Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, who will be strengthening his leadership within the party. Raising the threshold will make it harder for the National Union to split off from the joint faction and run independently.”

Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor), who is expected to attend today’s conference against the raising of the threshold, said yesterday, “As opposition head I see this process as very worrisome because it’s not innocent. It’s deliberate. The effort to sharply raise the threshold and whitewash it by terming it “improved governability” is part of a general, heavy-handed effort that endangers pluralism in this House, the opposition, [which is] the lifeblood of democracy.”

According to MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), who is leading the protest against raising the Knesset threshold, “The threshold being dictated by Lieberman is aimed at blocking those parties that are based on support from the Arab population from entering the Knesset. Lieberman is shamelessly promoting a process of politically transferring the Arab citizens out of Israeli politics. The entire opposition is united against this move. We also condemn the attempt to build high walls around politics that will prevent the entry of new political organizations and cohesive ideological groups.”

In a position paper written by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel in advance of this morning’s Knesset hearing, the group warns that similar efforts elsewhere show that raising the electoral threshold undermines political involvement, particularly among minorities. Therefore, there is a risk of serious harm to minority groups like the Haredim and Arabs in the Knesset.

The document also states that raising the threshold will lead to a rise in the number of “wasted” votes that go to parties that don’t get elected, noting that the less competition there is among the parties, the lower the voter participation, which allow larger parties to gain more votes than their true public support would give them.

The Knesset plenum.Credit: Emil Salman