Electoral “reform” in Israel

Peace talks are under way (well, sort of) between Israel and the Palestinians. The parties met in Washington earlier this week for an introductory session; more substantial talks are to begin in the region within two weeks. There is apparently a target of nine months within which to reach an agreement.

But that’s not the only news this week in Israel. There’s a big controversy over a bill that would reform the country’s electoral system by increasing the threshold for representation from 2% to 4%.

Israel votes as a single constituency to elect its 120 MPs on a party list (D’Hondt) system. Any party that reaches the 2% mark will get at least two members up – at this year’s election, twelve different lists won seats in the Knesset, or parliament. No single party has ever won a majority.

It’s quite normal for countries that use a relatively pure system of proportional representation to have a minimum threshold for election. By world standards, 2% is very low: 5% is fairly common (Germany and New Zealand are familiar examples), while Russia has 7% and Turkey 10%. So why is a move to 4% such a big thing?

To answer that question it’s necessary to first debunk the common explanation for Israel’s political instability. Critics of proportional representation point to the pure list system and low threshold as the reason for why governments rarely last a full term.

But this doesn’t fit the evidence. Governments don’t fall because very small parties desert them; they fall because of splits and shifting alliances among the five or six major parties, all of which would still be represented with a 4% threshold. Here, for example, are the parties currently represented, with the votes and seats won at this year’s election (official figures here):

List % vote Seats
Likud/Yisrael Beiteinu * 23.3 31
Yesh Atid * 14.3 19
Labor Party 11.4 15
Jewish Home * 9.1 12
Shas 8.8 11
United Torah Judaism 5.2 7
Hatnuah * 5.0 6
Meretz 4.6 6
United Arab List 3.7 4
Hadash 3.0 4
Balad 2.6 3
Kadima 2.1 2


Asterisks denote members of the current governing coalition. As can be seen, it’s in no way dependent on small parties (even without Hatnuah it would still have a majority). The effect of a 4% threshold would be just to redistribute the seats of the four smallest parties, improving the position of the government.

But why, then, has Israel been plagued so much by political instability? A complete explanation would cover a range of factors, but one is fairly obvious. It’s the fact that the parties that primarily represent the country’s Arab minority (often referred to collectively as “the Arab parties”, although “non-Zionist parties” is a better description) are traditionally not regarded as possible components of any majority coalition – in effect, they constitute a permanent opposition.

That means that anyone trying to put together a majority government has to command more than 60 seats, not out of a possible 120 but out of fewer than 110. (Arabs amount to about a fifth of Israel’s population, but low turnout means that the non-Zionist parties win at most about a dozen seats between them.) So coalitions are harder to form and more precarious in office.

One solution, of course, would be to take the non-Zionist parties seriously as potential partners. But in the current Israeli political climate it’s perhaps not surprising that a more popular option is to just try to eliminate them from parliament altogether.

And that brings us back to the proposed 4% threshold. A quick look at the above table shows that three of the four parties below it are – surprise, surprise! – the non-Zionist parties, United Arab List, Hadash and Balad.

It’s by no means the first attempt to drive them from the political scene. Before the previous election, in 2009, the Central Election Committee tried to ban both United Arab List and Balad for “not recognising the country’s right to exist.” The ban was overturned by the Supreme Court, as was a ban on an individual Balad candidate this year.

But moving the threshold doesn’t raise the same ideological arguments; on its face, it’s a completely neutral “reform” move. Its effect, however, would be to further chip away Israel’s reputation as a model democracy.

The non-Zionist parties could get around such a barrier by merging their candidates in a single list. But that would be a tricky exercise, since although they agree in rejecting the ideological basis of the Israeli state, they are otherwise very different. United Arab List is broadly “Islamist”; Hadash is Marxist or at least left-wing, claiming to represent both Arabs and Jews, while Balad is more secular Arab nationalist.

No doubt there’s a moral to be drawn about the fragility of Israeli democracy, but there’s a more general moral about how electoral systems work. Context is everything: a set of arrangements that would be completely fair and unobjectionable in one setting can look very different in another. There is no ideal system; the best we can hope for is something that is both democratic and practical for its particular circumstances.

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