Update on Israeli electoral “reform”

Last August I drew attention to an apparently innocuous move to change Israel’s electoral law that in reality was discriminatory. It was proposed to raise the threshold for representation from 2% to 4%, with the effect – and quite transparently the intention – of making it harder for the Arab or non-Zionist parties to win seats.

This week the measure was passed, although modified to set the new mark at 3.25% rather than 4%. The vote in the Knesset was 67-0; it was supported by the government parties and boycotted by the opposition.

The effect of a 3.25% threshold on last year’s election would have been to exclude the three smallest of the parties that won representation, namely Kadima and two of the three non-Zionist parties. The United Arab List, with 3.65%, would have just made it. (Here are the official figures.)

Supporters of the law argue, quite correctly, that the Arab parties could overcome the problem by running a joint list. But there’s something disturbingly racist about expecting people to coalesce just based on their ethnicity, ignoring ideological differences. The latter are substantial: the United Arab List has an Islamist flavor, whereas Balad is a secular Arab nationalist party and Hadash is a Marxist party open to both Jews and Arabs.

As Dahlia Scheindlin put it yesterday, “a Jewish government should not tell Arab citizens how to represent themselves.” My friend Sol Salbe parodied the idea with a suggestion of the various Jewish members of Australia’s different parties combining on a joint ticket.

What needs to be emphasised in all this is that the ostensible justification offered for the new law is bogus. Israel’s political system is notoriously unstable, but the relatively low threshold is not the culprit and there is no reason to think that lifting it will make any significant difference.

Look again at the figures from last year’s election. The result was an unwieldy four-party coalition government, but all of them were well above 3.25% (Hatnuah, on 5.0%, is the smallest, and it’s not even required for the government’s majority). And that’s quite typical: while parties do get elected with just two or three seats, they are almost never critical to a government’s success or failure.

As Noam Sheizaf at +972 magazine puts it:

Supporters of the law claim that it will diminish the disproportional bargaining power of small factions while strengthening the government’s ability to execute its policies. However, a closer examination of the political history shows that 2-4 person factions do not enjoy such powers at all, and that Palestinian parties, which will be hurt most by the change, have never been made part of the coalition, nor do have they ever received any special benefits (quite the opposite is true, in fact).

A more sophisticated version of the argument says that the higher threshold will promote stability by discouraging larger parties from splitting post-election, since the splinter groups will be less likely to survive the next election. For a more substantial threshold, like 5% (as in New Zealand or Germany), that would have some plausibility, but it’s a rare splinter group that can’t convince itself it’ll be able to manage 3.25%.

In any case, the argument misses the point: in the context of this government’s other measures, it’s clear that the overriding motive is to marginalise and deligitimise the Arab parties. And while the ethnic conflict gives that a special significance, there’s unfortunately nothing at all unusual in a government rewriting the electoral rules to try to disadvantage its opponents.

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