What Netanayhu Really Hopes to Achieve by Lowering the Electoral Threshold

Netanyahu's proposal to allow parties a mere three seats in Knesset was met with a resounding 'no.' But he was aiming at one specific group of voters ■ The race for Jerusalem mayor could send shock waves across the political scene – all the way to the general elections

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Did Netanyahu put forward a proposal he knew had no chance of being accepted?
Did Netanyahu put forward a proposal he knew had no chance of being accepted?Credit: Hadas Parush / Flash 90
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Another Jewish holiday and then another, another weekend and then an extended weekend, one more record day at the airport and a splurge of TV reruns. In the end, the moment of truth will arrive on October 15, when the Knesset returns from its summer break and the decisions will be made. Is Israel heading for an election next January or February, in the midst of the parliament’s winter session, or will the issue of the conscription law – the most painful blister on the coalition’s sole – find a remedy?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is speaking in two voices. With one, he’s urging the parties to come up with a solution and play out the Knesset’s term until its natural end, next October-November; with the other, he’s setting an ambitious electoral goal for Likud: 40 seats. At the beginning of the week he reverted to dealing with what bothered him two years ago: the electoral threshold – the percentage of total votes cast that a party needs to enter the Knesset. Presently the threshold stands at 3.25 percent, which translates into four Knesset seats. Netanyahu suggested to the coalition leaders that the percentage be reduced to 2.75, thus allowing parties that earn three seats to be represented in the House.

“You don’t have to worry,” he reassured his listeners. “Another seat more or less – you’ll all keep your positions in the next government, too. I intend to draw up a Magna Carta among us. The next coalition will be a copy-paste of this one.”

>> Fearing collapse of right-wing allies, Netanyahu offers to lower electoral threshold

His suggestion, he explained, stems from his concern about the fate of the rightist-Orthodox-Haredi bloc. If, heaven forbid, Shas, which is currently showing five or six seats in the polls, and Yisrael Beiteinu, ditto, don’t pass the electoral threshold, the bloc will lose precious, even critical seats. “My impression is that he really is uneasy about the situation of the bloc,” a party leader told me. “It’s a subject he raises every now and then in private conversations. But his bloc is not our bloc. His bloc includes additional, new elements, which are liable to enter at the expense of some of us.”

Hardly had the echoes of the prime minister’s proposal faded, when two of the present coalition leaders, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the senior representative of Agudat Yisrael (one of the two parties that constitute United Torah Judaism), and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of Habayit Hayehudi, responded with resounding nos. Bennett doesn’t want to make it easier for Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and MK Bezalel Smotrich, of his party, to run on their own. Litzman takes the same approach to his partner, MK Moshe Gafni, from Degel Hatorah, the second component of UTJ.

Shas’ leader, Interior Minister Arye Dery, wasn’t at the meeting, but his view is known: He’s the biggest opponent of all. Netanyahu explains that he’s proposing a lower threshold precisely for Dery. But Dery is driven by only one consideration: to torpedo the return of his nemesis, Eli Yishai, his hated predecessor as head of Shas, who is planning yet another comeback. Dery would prefer to gamble on the future of Shas than to lower the electoral threshold and facilitate Yishai’s return to the Knesset. He too remembers the meddling of Netanyahu and his aides, who did all they could to assist Yishai in the last election. Dery would rather die with the Philistines.

Enmity for Yishai is the eternal flame that burns within Dery. Whatever Yishai does, Dery will decide the opposite – and vice versa. In the municipal elections, set for the end of October, the two are engaged in frontal battles in many locales. When it was learned this week that Degel Hatorah and Shas are backing Moshe Leon in the Jerusalem mayoralty race, Yishai immediately announced his support for Zeev Elkin (currently a Likud minister in Netanyahu’s government). A new Jewish year. Lingering hates. Old accounts to be settled.

Shas Chairman Arye Dery and Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. Netanyahu says he's proposing a lower threshold for Dery, but Dery's driven by only one consideration.Credit: אפי שריר

Apropos Jerusalem: The world war that broke out in the Haredi world at the close of Yom Kippur over the city’s mayoral race – between Agudat Israel and the Gur Hasidim, which support the Haredi candidate Yossi Deitsch, and Degel Hatorah and Shas, which have pledged to support Moshe Leon (the fruit of Dery’s efforts), could spread to the national arena. The possibility of a compromise being forged on the subject of the conscription law, between the moderate positions of Degel Hatorah and Shas, on the one hand, and the more extreme stand of Agudat Israel, on the other, shrank the day before yesterday. The Haredim have drawn their knives, each with one hand on the throat of its opponent.

In such an atmosphere, good will and compromise are not on the table. The flames that erupted among the three parties in the capital are spreading swiftly to other cities. Agreements are being abandoned, understandings breaking down, acts of vengeance being carried out. If the conflict over Jerusalem is not resolved in the coming weeks, the Ashkenazi Haredi camp will be closer than ever to a split.

Such a development is likely to have a dramatic effect on the general election, and on the bloc about which Netanyahu is so concerned. After the Russia-Iran-Syria front, the flare-up among the ultra-Orthodox parties is the principal challenge confronting Netanyahu these days. If Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael end up running separately, both could well fail to pass the threshold to enter the Knesset, a development that could see Netanyahu’s Magna Carta end up on the ash heap of history.

Which brings us back to the initiative to lower the electoral threshold, which was DOA, but could rise again, under the right circumstances.

Before we get to that, however, one might well wonder whether Netanyahu put forward a proposal he knew had no chance of being accepted.

The message was aimed at the voters of Habayit Hayehudi – at the settlers who in 2015 abandoned their ideological home and flocked to the polling stations to vote Likud and Bibi, after the latter persuaded them that a weak Likud and a strong Habayit Hayehudi would translate into a left-wing government.

Now he’s signaling them that, again in 2019, they would do well to vote Likud. They need not worry: After all, the places of Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked are guaranteed; they will retain their ministerial portfolios in any constellation. And if that’s not an indication of an approaching election – possibly closer than ever – what is?

Perhaps it was the premier’s celebratory announcement of his intention to airlift to Israel 1,000 members of the Falashmura community in Ethiopia (out of some 8,000 who remain in immigrant camps there), an issue that he never found the time to contend with earlier in his term. Or maybe it was the resurrection of Culture Minister Miri Regev’s “loyalty in culture” bill, which was previously blocked by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, but now has his backing.

Or perhaps the answer lies hidden in the words of Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, the person closest to Netanyahu and his political-coalition operator, who is saying that there’s a very good prospect of an election next February.

Levin is telling his interlocutors that it will be impossible to manage a coalition during the very long, upcoming winter session – almost half a year – when it’s clear to everyone that an election is looming and parties are playing up to their voters and therefore running wild. Better to go to the polls early.

Asked for comment, Levin’s office stated that he is not specifying dates, but that it’s up to the partners to decide whether they will work together in the coming session, in coordination and cooperation, or not.

Kahlon the red

The “New Histadrut” labor federation has a chairman named Avi Nissenkorn. It also has an informal hero by the name of Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister. Not the casting one would have expected.

Never before has such an idyllic relationship prevailed between the country’s largest organization of workers and the treasury, and between the leader of the workers and the minister that oversees its operation. That’s a fact. Never before has a Histadrut leader opened the organization’s doors to the finance minister, and never before has the minister been given such sweeping access to the workers. Never before have the Histadrut and its leaders been granted such an attentive ear and such a willing heart in the ministry that historically has symbolized for them the heart of the axis of evil.

If we had become accustomed to a hostile, suspicious, cat-and-mouse interaction between the two bureaucracies, to disputes, strikes and threats – nowadays, in the joint tenures of Messrs. Kahlon and Nissenkorn, it feels more like a commercial for a couple that celebrates Valentine’s Day 24/7.

New Histadrut Chairman Avi Nissenkorn and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. Their political love affair got a steroid injection back in July 2017.Credit: Moti Milrod

There is no large Histadrut gathering at which the finance minister isn’t a guest of honor. There’s no congress or convention in which Kahlon is not on the stage, plied with praise and acclaim in a socialist spirit that would bring a blush to the cheeks of even the revered Labor leader Berl Katznelson.

On May Day, the international holiday of the workers, Kahlon showed up in a black jacket and red tie – a not accidental fashion statement – alongside Nissenkorn in a festive event at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. Embracing each other, they waved to the audience. Afterward they gave a joint interview. Kahlon couldn’t have been more empathetic. “The allegation that the large unions are brutally powerful is an empty statement,” the finance minister said.

If a spontaneous vote had been held then and there for Histadrut chairman, Kahlon would have won in a landslide. Maybe even Nissenkorn would have voted for him.

Two weeks ago, at an event held by the Israel Electric Corporation with 4,000 people in attendance, Kahlon stood on as Miko Zarfati, who has headed the corporation’s union for the past 15 years, declared that the “Electric Corporation’s army” is henceforth the force of the finance minister. “We all owe this man our place of work,” he added.

In another month, the election for Ma’of, the Administrative and Clerical Workers Union, the largest in Israel, with about 240,000 members, will hold its 17th convention. Naturally, the Histadrut leader and the finance minister will be in attendance. The timing of that display of power will be excellent for Kahlon, who is also the leader of the Kulanu party.

The political love affair between Kahlon and Nissenkorn got a steroid injection in July 2017, when Avi Gabbay, Kahlon’s former associate in Kulanu and then his bitter rival, was elected leader of the Labor Party. Not only was he elected, he defeated Nissenkorn’s ally MK Amir Peretz. And not only did he defeat him, he did it with the aid of MK Shelly Yacimovich, whom Nissenkorn beat in the election for Histadrut leader.

Two clear camps marked by mutual hatred and hostility were created. Kahlon’s life mission is to liquidate Gabbay politically – late revenge. Nissenkorn shares that passion. Kahlon’s ambition is to deprive the Labor leader of all his troops. Recently, he recruited the secretary general of the moshav movement, Meir Tzur, to Kulanu and promised him the agriculture portfolio in the next government. Tzur now has his own life mission: to persuade his moshavnik friends to vote Kulanu. His appointment to the coveted portfolio will depend on the number of Knesset seats Kulanu wins.

But the big prize Kahlon is after will be won when Nissenkorn himself comes out of the closet and publicly declares himself a Kulanu voter. And when the chairman expresses support, lo and behold, the well-oiled and powerful Histadrut mechanism that brought about his election mobilizes, too. It’s not always lawful and not always kosher. It usually smells fishy, but is generally effective.

Nissenkorn would commit suicide if it would guarantee Kahlon’s return to the treasury in the next government. To that end, Kulanu needs to win enough seats, and Nissenkorn can help. Of late, the people closest to him – the heads of the districts in the Histadrut – have been explaining to their various functionaries how critical it is to assist Kahlon and Kulanu. Shades of “Be Kahlons,” as Netanyahu said in praise of Kahlon when he was a member of Likud and a popular minister.

It’s no longer a secret, it’s happening openly. In a Rosh Hashana toast in the Histadrut a week ago, the head of the Jewish National Fund, Danny Atar, jibed at Nissenkorn publicly: “I hope we’ll see you in this forum next year, too.” The chairman blushed like someone caught in an illicit act. Nissenkorn’s office declined to respond to a question I asked them on the subject.

Romanian joke

The comic episode that concluded the Ten Days of Awe was supplied by Ehud Barak. Well, not by him, but by the ludicrous frenzy that erupted in the wake of a speech he delivered in Tel Aviv.

Barak implicitly likened Netanyahu to Nicolae Ceausescu, the last ruler of Communist Romania. He termed him “a traitor to the nation he should be serving,” and added, “We have become like the Romania of Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu instead of a ‘model society’ and a ‘light unto the nations.’ What shall we do with the shame? The nation and the citizens who brought Netanyahu to power, are the ones who will remove him from power.”

Ehud Barak, who implicitly likened Netanyahu to Ceausescu, is totally committed to toppling the prime minister.Credit: Meged Gozani

Sharp, harsh words. No more so than what Netanyahu and his spokespersons said about Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog in the last election. But all is forgotten and forgiven to Bibi & Co. When someone on the left, like Barak, however, adopts the violent terminology of the right, even in his camp there are some who turn up their nose and scold the speaker with a nu, nu, nu, it’s not nice to talk like that.

The corrupt Romanian leader and his wife were executed by a firing squad following a lightning trial by a drumhead court. That was 30 years ago. Likud accused Barak of incitement to murder after his speech, as though he had wished Bibi and Sara the same end as the Ceausescu couple. He didn’t, but in the social media the false comparison spread quickly.

Who even remembers the Romanian couple, their exploits and their end? People of 50 and above, people of Romanian origin in Israel, historians, foreign-news editors. That’s not the material of which political assassins are made. Will some Yigal Amir of the left rush to google the oddly named people Barak mentioned, work himself into a rage, load his pistol and embark on a hunt for the prime minister? That’s not hysterical, it’s satirical.

When the rabbis of Judea-Samaria-Gaza and the leaders of the extreme right incited against Rabin, they didn’t go back 30 years in the time tunnel to the assassination of President Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, or to the liquidation of South Vietnamese politician Ngo Dinh Diem. They were businesslike: death for persecutors of Jews, for informers against Jews, Arafat, SS uniform (Nazis are forever), coffins, torches, knives plunged into photographs of the leader as the speakers roar their words from the balcony. That’s incitement. That’s how malice is implanted in hearts, that’s how sick minds are brainwashed.

Barak is campaigning. He’s inviting the attacks on him. He’s accused of not jumping into the cold water, that he’s just screeching from the gallery, giving interviews, tweeting and speechifying. But he’s more intensely involved in the dialogue than the leaders of the opposition parties – MK Yair Lapid, Avi Gabbay and MK Tamar Zandberg – and more than the official leader of the opposition, MK Tzipi Livni. He’s far more effective than they are. What he has to say on security and policy carries more weight than the words of any serving politician.

Barak is totally committed to toppling Netanyahu, as he was mobilized a few years back to keeping the Netanyahu government in power. As the election draws near, he is escalating his remarks on a logarithmic Richter scale: an attack at level six is ten times as powerful as one at level five. Now he’s reached level eight.

His shares aren’t yet traded on the political stock exchange. Given a certain concatenation of circumstances, though, he could find himself on the playing field. That doesn’t depend on him, but on potential buyers. He is not directly endangering Netanyahu, but his appearances, his speeches of castigation and anger have a cumulative power. Netanyahu doesn’t treat them lightly. He has always had a reverent attitude toward Barak. Both of them are political killers, both are total cynics, both know how to run a campaign, neither of them will balks at using any and all means.

A few weeks ago, the prime minister spoke with a certain person. They surveyed the situation calmly. Netanyahu attributed no importance to Lapid or Gabbay.

“The only one who’s working is my friend,” he said (in English) and smiled. There was no need to name the “friend.”

Speak softly, Speaker

Three weeks ago, I reported here about this year’s annual memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin, which will be held on Saturday evening, November 3, in Tel Aviv. The Darkenu (“Our Way”) movement of the billionaire Kobi Richter was to organize the event, in association with an organization headed by Rabbi Shay Piron, a former education minister.

Because most of the funding will come from Darkenu, which describes itself as a movement of the “moderate majority” and seeks “unity of the people,” the main speakers were asked to adjust their messages to the dominant narrative. To be soft, embracing, caressing. Not controversial. The Labor Party found it difficult to accept this, and rightly so from its perspective. Blurring and repressing the truth, and smearing cosmetics on the wounds only helps to perpetuate the right-wing government, and certainly does an injustice to Rabin.

In the past few weeks, tough negotiations have been underway between Gabbay’s campaign chairman, Tomer Lotan, and the Darkenu movement about the character of the memorial assembly, the identity of the speakers and the messages they will convey. (Piron’s group withdrew when they realized the event would not be conducted like a pageant in a community center, all honey and sweetness with self-righteous rolling of the eyes.)

What the Labor leaders haven’t yet been able to swallow is the invitation to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a senior Likud figure, to speak as the representative of the ruling party. Edelstein is from the ultra-right wing of Likud, a supporter of the settlements and the annexation of the territories, and he is against the two-state solution, the Oslo Accords and everything that’s identified with Rabin, with the exception of the Six-Day War, during which Rabin was chief of staff.

Labor has vetoed Edelstein. They will accept what they refer to as “very soft right.” (“Veto” is my word. Gabbay’s office prefers to say that Edelstein is a “controversial” choice.) Now, they are waiting for a candidate who will answer to that description.

Edelstein’s office says they are unaware of any veto.