Israel must lower its electoral threshold and empower moderate Arab voices

After the threshold was raised three years ago, Arab parties were compelled to form a united list in which the more extreme parties, although smaller, have assumed the dominant role.

By Moshe Arens

The electoral threshold permitting a party to be represented in the Knesset should be lowered. I can already hear some of my friends asking: Are you crazy? Don’t you know that the root cause of Israel’s frequent political crises is the multiplicity of parties represented in parliament? If Israel needs a stable government, we must decrease the number of parties in the Knesset, they say.

Let’s think about that for a moment. The latest increase in the threshold to 3.25 percent, legislated in March 2014 and advertised as a step to greater political stability, brought us a coalition government with a razor-thin majority of two in the 120-seat Knesset.

This is how Avigdor Lieberman eventually managed to attain his goal and become defense minster, widening the coalition to 66 from 61 seats. Not everything that seems obvious at first sight turns out to be correct. Politics is not linear algebra. The results of constitutional changes are hard to predict even by some who consider themselves experts at this sort of thing.

Any consideration of a change in the electoral process must be accompanied by an exploration of all the possible ramifications the change might entail. It stands to reason that such a change should require more than a simple majority and should reflect a wide-ranging consensus that includes some of the opposition parties. That was not the case with the latest increase in the electoral threshold.

That was also not the case with the previous change to the electoral law. Claiming a cure-all to Israel’s political ills, and backed by a massive advertising campaign and the mobilization of public support, the Knesset in 1992 passed a law for the direct election of the prime minister. A key section of the law passed by a majority of one. A leader of this campaign was Amnon Rubinstein, a professor of constitutional law and a recipient of the Israel Prize for his academic achievements. You couldn’t have asked for better credentials.

It turned out to be an abject failure. It caused the downsizing of Israel’s two major political parties – Likud and Labor – and the strengthening of the small parties, only increasing the instability of Israel’s parliamentary politics. The law was canceled after nine years, and Israel has returned to the classical parliamentary election system. A lesson should have been learned: Approach changes in the electoral system with great care.

The immediate effect of the recent increase of the electoral threshold was in the vote of the Arab community. Concerned about whether all the three Arab parties representing divergent views would pass the raised threshold, these parties were compelled to form a united list in which the more extreme parties, although smaller, have assumed the dominant role. There is good reason to believe that they do not represent the views of the majority of Israel’s Arab citizens, but no choice was left to the Israeli Arab voter to express his preference.

Many of Israel’s Arab citizens believe in the integration of Israel’s Arabs into the country’s economy and society. The more extreme Arab political parties do not share this aim; instead of integration they call for separation and confrontation. A good example of this internal conflict is the approach to voluntary national service by Arab young men and women. The Joint List of Arab parties opposes such service, while the number of young Arabs – men and women – who volunteer for such service increases from year to year.

Who are those Arab citizens who believe in integration and eschew conflict going to vote for in the next election? Unless the electoral threshold is reduced, they are left with voting for the Joint List or staying away from the polls. Reducing the threshold may encourage the formation of a moderate Arab party representing the interests of Israel’s Arab citizens but aiming for integration into Israel’s society and economy. That could be a very important step in advancing such integration and bringing Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens closer.

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