Fearing Collapse of Right-wing Allies, Netanyahu Offers to Lower Electoral Threshold

Netanyahu suggests lower minimum for party representation in the Knesset ■ 'It's easier to maneuver smaller parties,' says source who spoke to PM about his motive

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, September 16, 2018.
Sebastian Scheiner/Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed on Sunday that the minimum percentage of the vote necessary for a party to be represented in the next Knesset be lowered from 3.25 percent to 2.75 percent. The prime minister conditioned the move, however, on all of the partners to his governing coalition agreeing to it.

"Without such consent, we will not move ahead on the subject," Netanyahu said. A coalition source told Haaretz that the aim of the step is to provide assistance to coalition parties whose support has been lagging and are seen as being in danger of not garnering the necessary minimum 3.25 percent of the vote in the next election, which must be held by November of next year. The two parties whose support is seen as possibly dropping below 3.25 percent according to the polls are Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu. 

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"The question was not what the situation of these parties is today, but what their situation will be close to Election Day. In real time, the voters flee parties that the polls show may not exceed the percentage threshold," said the source, who spoke with the prime minister.

"Netanyahu himself has an interest in lowering the percentage threshold and increasing the number of small parties in the Knesset. The extortion capacity of the small parties is smaller than the extortion of the medium-sized parties and it's easier to maneuver among them and maintain stability," the source said, in an apparent reference to the demands that the other coalition parties could make on the prime minister.

At this stage, Netanyahu, who heads the Likud party, apparently does not intend to force the issue against the will of coalition partners. Associates of Shas Chairman Arye Dery have said that he is opposed to lowering the threshold. Sources in the office of Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads United Torah Judaism, said he too opposes such a change. 

One Knesset member said at this stage, the opposition of the two parties wouldn't necessary doom such a move. "Netanyahu is taking the step for [Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor] Lieberman and Dery. It's clear that they won't come out immediately in favor of the step, but as the time for the election gets closer and the opinion polls frighten them, they absolutely may climb down from their tree."

A coalition source said on Sunday that Netanyahu was "having fun with the idea" and hadn't made a final decision. Although the prime minister wants to help Shas leader Dery, "the problem is that Dery is not prepared to cooperate with this initiative due to concern that it would bring his rival, Eli Yishai, [back] into the Knesset," the source said.

"Netanyahu sees Eli Yishai's failure [in the 2015 election] as a waste of two Knesset seats that could have increased [the prime minister's] national camp in the Knesset and he therefore would be happy to  provide a safety net in the form of lowering the threshold percentage," the source added.

Last year, after reports of a similar change in the electoral law, Dery said he would not permit such a step to move forward. Likud Knesset member David Bitan told Haaretz at the time that he had taken such an initiative in 2016, but Dery held it up.

Another cabinet minister said then that "this subject comes up from time to time in discussions that Netanyahu holds."

Before the most recent Knesset election in 2015, the Knesset narrowly passed a change in the election law raising the threshold percentage from 2 percent to 3.25 percent. The move, which was led at the time by Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, was seen as designed to stymie the Arab parties, which then formed a Joint List to ensure their representation. Ironically raising the threshold to 3.25 percent may now threaten Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, which polls suggest may not meet the threshold.

Israel's proportional representation allocates Knesset seats in proportion to the votes received by every party that meets the minimum threshold. 

If the coalition seeks to advance the lowering of the threshold to 2.75 percent, it would be able to quickly pass the change in the law and would get broad support from opposition Knesset members. 

"We would certainly support lowering the threshold percentage," Joint List Knesset member Dov Khenin told Haaretz. "Raising the threshold in the last election was an anti-democratic step designed to create a high wall for small ideological parties. Small parties don't undermine government stability, rather it's the large parties."