Who's Afraid of Raising the Electoral Threshold in Israel - and Why?

The law would would force a political uniformity on the Arabs, which does not exist for Jews, and deny them the political diversity that Jews enjoy.

The government will table a 'package deal' of three key bills in the Knesset this week, in an attempt to enforce coalition discipline and avoid debate on each bill individually.

Among the bills that will be voted on is the so-called "governability bill," which contains a controversial provision raising the threshold for entering the Knesset from 2 percent to 3.25 percent of valid votes cast. In other words, a small party will need to garner at least 3.25 percent of the total votes cast in order to be eligible for Knesset representation.

Proponents of the clause maintain that it would improve efficiency and governance, by avoiding the spoiling role played by smaller parties in coalition negotiations.

Unlike the constituency voting systems in the United States, United Kingdom and much of Europe, which tend to result in legislatures composed of a small number of large parties, Israel's proportional system enables a much wider range of parties – many of them with less than a handful of representatives - to enter the Knesset.

A legislature with a plethora of parties is commonly regarded as highly democratic – giving voice to a range of ideologies and positions – but it is messy. And, in the case of Israel, it has complicated the making and maintaining of coalitions.

For that reasons, governments from the earliest days of the country have attempted to limit the number of small parties in the Knesset by imposing electoral thresholds on their participation.

The original threshold of 0.8 percent was raised to 1 percent in 1951, to 2.5 percent in 1992 and to the present 2 percent in 2004. The legislation currently before the house would raise it again to 3.5 percent.

The effect of the law, if passed, is that parties with fewer than four seats will not enter the Knesset.

In assessing the validity and potential efficacy of the proposed law, it is necessary to examine the claims made in support of it and the virulent criticism that it has garnered.

There is no empirical evidence that raising the threshold improves governability, though it certainly raises the bar for the entry of new parties into the Knesset – something in which existing parties may have a vested interest. None of the changes that have been implemented since 1951 have resulted in any discernable improvement in the messiness of the process and I’m not aware of any studies supporting the contention that a party with, say, six seats is any more flexible than one with three seats.

On the other hand, Israel's proportional representation system has given representation to minority segments of the population – primarily Israel Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox – which may well have been effectively disenfranchised or swallowed into much larger structures had the electoral system been different.

Not only that, but each time the threshold is raised, more Israeli voters are disenfranchised. Votes cast for parties which do not pass the threshold, are discarded – i.e. they do not count toward the allocation of Knesset seats. The result is that voters who cast legitimate ballots are effectively disqualified – and the number of such voters is likely to increase significantly with the raising of the threshold. As such, it is a highly undemocratic move.

Common wisdom holds that the sector most in danger from the new bill is Israel's Arab population, currently represented by two parties with four seats each and one with three. Under the new law, they would need to merge in order to stay represented in the Knesset.

That, in effect, would force a political uniformity on the Arabs, which does not exist for Jews. The three current Arab parties are not fringe parties; they represent mainstream politics on the Arab street, which is just as heterogeneous as its Jewish counterpart. But they represent a much smaller population base, resulting in smaller parties in the Knesset. The effect of a higher threshold would be to deny Arabs the political diversity that Jews enjoy.

Whether the taming of Israel-Arab politics is the purpose of the new clause, as claimed by its many opponents, or merely a side-effect, the fact remains that it is likely have a dampening effect on the political expression of a population that is already disadvantaged. It is also a segment that is de facto excluded from government.

There is evidence on the Arab street that greater unity among the Arab parties would be welcomed. Polls taken before the previous election clearly indicated as much. But such change should come from within. It is highly undemocratic to force homogeneity on Arabs (due to the smaller size of their population) but not on Jews.

Israel has experience with the unintended effects to electoral tinkering. The best-known example was the brief interregnum during which the prime minister was elected directly. That had the wholly unanticipated effect of weakening the larger parties and was soon revoked. It should be a lesson to today's generation of MKs.

The government will table a 'package deal' of three key bills in the Knesset this week, in an attempt to enforce coalition discipline and avoid debate on each bill individually.

Among the bills that will be voted on is the so-called "governability bill," which contains a controversial provision raising the threshold for entering the Knesset from 2 percent to 3.25 percent of valid votes cast. In other words, a small party will need to garner at least 3.25 percent of the total votes cast in order to be eligible for Knesset representation.

Proponents of the clause maintain that it would improve efficiency and governance, by avoiding the spoiling role played by smaller parties in coalition negotiations.

Unlike the constituency voting systems in the United States, United Kingdom and much of Europe, which tend to result in legislatures composed of a small number of large parties, Israel's proportional system enables a much wider range of parties – many of them with less than a handful of representatives - to enter the Knesset.

A legislature with a plethora of parties is commonly regarded as highly democratic – giving voice to a range of ideologies and positions – but it is messy. And, in the case of Israel, it has complicated the making and maintaining of coalitions.

For that reasons, governments from the earliest days of the country have attempted to limit the number of small parties in the Knesset by imposing electoral thresholds on their participation.

The original threshold of 0.8 percent was raised to 1 percent in 1951, to 2.5 percent in 1992 and to the present 2 percent in 2004. The legislation currently before the house would raise it again to 3.5 percent.

The effect of the law, if passed, is that parties with fewer than four seats will not enter the Knesset.

In assessing the validity and potential efficacy of the proposed law, it is necessary to examine the claims made in support of it and the virulent criticism that it has garnered.
There is no empirical evidence that raising the threshold improves governability, though it certainly raises the bar for the entry of new parties into the Knesset – something in which existing parties may have a vested interest. None of the changes that have been implemented since 1951 have resulted in any discernable improvement in the messiness of the process and I’m not aware of any studies supporting the contention that a party with, say, six seats is any more flexible than one with three seats.
On the other hand, Israel's proportional representation system has given representation to minority segments of the population – primarily Israel Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox – which may well have been effectively disenfranchised or swallowed into much larger structures had the electoral system been different.
Not only that, but each time the threshold is raised, more Israeli voters are disenfranchised. Votes cast for parties which do not pass the threshold, are discarded – i.e. they do not count toward the allocation of Knesset seats. The result is that voters who cast legitimate ballots are effectively disqualified – and the number of such voters is likely to increase significantly with the raising of the threshold. As such, it is a highly undemocratic move.
Common wisdom holds that the sector most in danger from the new bill is Israel's Arab population, currently represented by two parties with four seats each and one with three. Under the new law, they would need to merge in order to stay represented in the Knesset.

That, in effect, would force a political uniformity on the Arabs, which does not exist for Jews. The three current Arab parties are not fringe parties; they represent mainstream politics on the Arab street, which is just as heterogeneous as its Jewish counterpart. But they represent a much smaller population base, resulting in smaller parties in the Knesset. The effect of a higher threshold would be to deny Arabs the political diversity that Jews enjoy.

Whether the taming of Israel-Arab politics is the purpose of the new clause, as claimed by its many opponents, or merely a side-effect, the fact remains that it is likely have a dampening effect on the political expression of a population that is already disadvantaged. It is also a segment that is de facto excluded from government.

There is evidence on the Arab street that greater unity among the Arab parties would be welcomed. Polls taken before the previous election clearly indicated as much. But such change should come from within. It is highly undemocratic to force homogeneity on Arabs (due to the smaller size of their population) but not on Jews.

Israel has experience with the unintended effects to electoral tinkering. The best-known example was the brief interregnum during which the prime minister was elected directly. That had the wholly unanticipated effect of weakening the larger parties and was soon revoked. It should be a lesson to today's generation of MKs. 

Tomer Noyberg