Why Netanyahu wants to lower Knesset entry threshold

After increasing the Knesset entry threshold before the 2015 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now wants to help potential coalition partners by lowering it.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Knesset session in Jerusalem, March 12, 2018.  Photo by Reuters/Ronen Zvulun.

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benjamin netanyahu, israeli politics, left-wing, right-wing, knesset, elections

Oct 8, 2018

For the moment, it is still unclear what will happen with the experimental balloon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu floated Sept. 16 regarding lowering the electoral threshold, which stands at 3.25% of the votes today. “I’m raising the possibility of lowering the electoral threshold by half a percent … but this must be with everyone’s agreement,” Netanyahu said seemingly offhand to his senior partners in the coalition — the leaders of the right-wing parties and the ultra-Orthodox.

In fact, there was nothing innocent or offhand in this statement, which made some of his partners sweat, each for his own personal electoral reasons. They, like Netanyahu, are examining the initiative with an instrumentalist outlook.

Chairman of HaBayit HaYehdi and Minister of Education Naftali Bennett fears that lowering the electoral threshold will cause a split in his party and spur the most extreme element — member of the Knesset Bezalel Smotrich — to establish an independent party.

The same applies to Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri. He also can’t bear the thought that his bitter rival — former Shas Chairman Eli Yishai, who heads the rival independent party Yachad — would be elected to the next Knesset. (In the 2015 election, Yishai’s Yachad got almost 3% of the votes.) Deri’s opposition stands in spite of the possibility that lowering the electoral threshold would benefit him as well, since his situation in the polls is not stellar. The will to seek revenge on Yishai is probably what motivates him.

But the same Yishai is the main motivation for Netanyahu in lowering the electoral threshold as part of the lessons he had learned from the last election. Netanyahu then hoped that Yishai, who was considered loyal to Netanyahu in previous governments, would succeed in getting elected to the Knesset. Yishai was indeed popular on the ultra-Orthodox street and the far right but failed in the election.

About a year before the 2015 election, pressured by Yisrael Beitenu Chairman Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu joined his initiative to raise the electoral threshold. The Election Law was amended in 2014, and the electoral threshold was raised from 2% to 3.25%. The explanation given to the public was that it was meant to improve governability by reducing the number of smaller parties. Liberman apparently thought he could thus electorally damage the Arab parties.

In practice, the opposite happened. The Arab parties united in the Joint List, and their political power was not damaged. Liberman, in contrast, nearly found himself outside of the Knesset because of the revelation of a corruption scandal in his party that led voters to abandon him.

And Yishai? He was the tragic figure of the last election. If they hadn’t raised the electoral threshold, he would have made it into the Knesset with three to four seats. Yishai was very close: Only 11,000 votes separated him from entering the Knesset and participating in Netanyahu’s coalition. And Netanyahu needed him. After the election, Netanyahu found it difficult to form a coalition because of Liberman’s surprising refusal to join him and had to manage with a narrow coalition of 61 members of the Knesset (out of 120 Knesset seats). He was subject to the extortion of individual members of the Knesset who could have toppled him at any given moment. Now Netanyahu wants to fix this.

The depiction above illustrates the lack of seriousness with which Netanyahu and leaders of his government are handling significant changes to the structure of the governmental system. The electoral threshold could rise and fall like a pendulum, supposedly for the sake of “governability.” The people involved don’t even bother to hide their personal, cynical and instrumentalist motivations. If in 2014, when the law was changed and the threshold was raised, it was explained to the public as an initiative to bring stability to the political system, now everything is out on the table with no filters. As clay in the hands of the potter, so the Election Law has become an instrument in the hands of Netanyahu to ensure his survival. This time he thinks that lowering the threshold would help him enlarge the right-wing bloc and easily form a government, and he doesn’t bother at all to look at the damage such frequent changes to an important law would cause.

“The electoral threshold should be raised and not lowered. This is what’s right for the country, even if not for some politicians,” Zionist Camp Chairman Avi Gabbay told Al-Monitor. He intends to lead his party in opposition to lowering the threshold if it comes to a vote in the Knesset.

At the core of Gabbay’s opposition is the logic according to which a high threshold prevents the splintering of the political system, the loss of votes and extortion following the election in the process of coalition formation. In fact, this was the argument that in 2014 led to a dramatic increase of the electoral threshold. The current threshold is the highest it has ever been in Israel. The standard for entering the Knesset is now at least four mandates, while in past years even parties that received only two mandates succeeded in getting elected (and there were years when only one mandate was sufficient).

Thus, there is no practical reason to lower the electoral threshold, aside from the explanation that Netanyahu is getting ready to call an early election and acting to create a comfortable coalition situation for himself.

Raising the electoral threshold in 2014 turned out to be a good step in promoting governability. It forced the Arab parties to unite and diminished the phenomenon of splintering. The surprising advocate of lowering the threshold now is Meretz Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg, who argues that this would increase representation in the Knesset, and says that it’s a position of principle for her. In Meretz’s case, the lower electoral threshold saved it from disappearing in 2009, when the important and longstanding left-wing party got only three mandates. This is a weighty argument, and to the credit of Meretz and Zandberg, they are consistent in their support of a low electoral threshold. Thus, it’s extremely important to make such a decision only after an in-depth public debate, and not casually.

“The electoral threshold at its current percentage has created a good process of smaller parties uniting with each other. Thus, it has reduced the number of parties in the Knesset and moderated the extortion capacities of small interest groups,” said Yohanan Plesner, chairman of the Israel Democracy Institute, in conversation with Al-Monitor. As he sees it, “it’s been proven to be a factor that consolidates the political system. Relative to nations that have a parliamentary democracy, we’re in a good place in the middle: In Germany, Poland, and even New Zealand, the electoral threshold is 5%.”

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