Knesset Expected to Raise Electoral Threshold to 3.25%

Knesset to debate two other controversial proposals: military draft bill and bill calling for referendum before ceding land.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Knesset members are expected to make it tougher for others to join their ranks Tuesday, by voting to raise the threshold for entering the Knesset to 3.25 percent of valid votes in a general election.

It was not yet clear how all the Hatnuah and Habayit Hayehudi MKs were planning to vote on the so-called Governance Bill. Monday’s debate on the bill took place without the opposition MKs, who were boycotting the session.

Several Hatnuah MKs were critical of the governance bill, which some say will reduce the number of Arab MKs because there are far fewer Arab voters than Jewish ones, making it harder for Arab candidates to get enough votes to push them over the threshold.

“This law is meant to limit the presence of Arab parties in the Knesset, and that’s a bad mistake,” said MK Amram Mitzna of Hatnuah. “It’s not right and it’s not worthy.”

The governance bill “is not what its name says it is,” Mitzna added. “It isn’t meant to bring about any improvement in governance. What does blocking small groups from being represented in the Knesset have to do with governance? Governance, as I understand, would first of all be as even Yesh Atid promised in its platform – that the head of the largest party would form the government. Where did that clause go?”

Immediately after the vote on the governance bill, debate will begin on the new military draft bill, though a vote on that bill is expected only Thursday. The third controversial bill on the verge of passage calls for a national referendum before the government can agree to give up Israeli territory. That bill is expected to be voted on tomorrow.

MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah) made it clear he would support all three bills, but said, “I am totally opposed to the referendum law, but if this is the only thing that will advance us toward peace, then I will support it wholeheartedly. I believe that most of the public favors a peace agreement.”

Habayit Hayehudi members were also critical of the governance bill. “I have a lot of stomach pains over this bill,” said MK Shuli Moalem, who has opposed it all along. “My vote in favor stems from my coalition obligations.”

Party colleague Nissan Slomiansky echoed her remarks. “I don’t think raising the electoral threshold is a good thing, but what can I do?” he said. “I’m in a coalition. In public life, sometimes you have no choice.”

By contrast, Health Minister Yael German (Yesh Atid) said the bill would strengthen the Arab parties.

“Without the Arab parties, this Knesset won’t be a Knesset, but I think that in the wake of this law the Arab parties will be strengthened. I’m sure that during the next elections, when the Arab population knows that if it doesn’t vote the parties are liable not to pass the threshold, then instead of 11 Arab MKs, we’ll see 18 here,” she said.

The Knesset plenum, however, was conducting a one-sided debate. Opposition members were boycotting the debate over the strict implementation of a clause in the Knesset regulations that blocks a lengthy debate of the three bills and would have made it difficult for the opposition to express any meaningful objection to them. Instead, they set up an “alternative plenum,” where the four deputy Knesset speakers from the opposition led the debate.

“Citizens are asking me whether our move wasn’t childish,” said opposition leader Labor MK Isaac Herzog in his opening address to the alternative gathering. “But the fact is that now the public understands what’s happening here. We are considering serious and drastic steps. The government is taking steps of hatred, exclusion of other groups, and shoving parties to the margins.”

Labor faction chairman Eitan Cabel, who convinced the Arab and Haredi factions to join the alternative debate, said the opposition was united.

“This isn’t a procedural struggle, but a substantive struggle on the image of the Knesset and the image of democracy,” he said. “Despite our differences, the opposition is united and determined not to yield on those principles we’ve set for ourselves.”

MK Hanna Swaid of Hadash, a party that could suffer serious damage if the threshold is raised, said, “The coalition’s use of democratic tools to deny rights is cynical and indecent, and proves how Israel’s ‘glorious’ democracy is devoid of content.”

Back in the real plenum, Finance Minister Yair Lapid succeeded in embarrassing the opposition by reading out archived versions of speeches given by both Herzog and Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On supporting an increase in the electoral threshold when similar bills had come up in the past.

“The Labor chairman suggested raising the electoral threshold twice, in both the 18th and 19th Knessets,” said Lapid. “Herzog explained that ‘In a situation of a low threshold the result is harm to the stability of the regime and an undermining of the Israeli political system. The electoral threshold in Israel is among the lowest among the world’s democracies.’ The principle he is describing is correct.”

Other coalition sources said that the opposition boycott was aimed at enabling the Labor Party to avoid voting on the military draft law, both to get Haredi support for Benjamin Ben Eliezer’s candidacy for president and to lay the groundwork for possible cooperation in some future coalition.

MK David Rotem, who sponsored the governance bill on behalf of his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, was looking forward to passing the bill without opposition interference. “The bills will pass with the required majority without the opposition bothering us,” he said. “We will save a lot of time.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset, Oct. 16, 2013.Credit: Haaretz Archive / Amos Ben Gershom, GPO

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