Israel's electoral threshold: A matchmaker for marriages of convenience

The four-Knesset-seat threshold has forced several parties to form alliances despite starkly contrasting ideological differences between them.

al-monitor Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (L) attends the launch of the Democratic Union, which he formed with Stav Shaffir from the Labor Party and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz (R), Tel Aviv, July 25, 2019. Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images.

Jul 30, 2019

On July 28, the council of Meretz convened to approve the left-wing party's merger with Democratic Israel, led by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Labor Party Knesset member Stav Shaffir. The writer David Grossman, addressing the Meretz delegates, endorsed the deal. “Sometimes,” he said, “marriages of convenience hold together better than marriages of love.” Perhaps, but not all is rosy in this political marriage.

Over the years, the political meanderings of Meretz's happy “groom,” Barak, had taken him from the Israel Ahat alliance to Labor to Atzmaut, and today the extent of his love for his new bride, the political left, was obvious at their engagement ceremony. Announcing the formation of the Democratic Camp on July 25, Barak pointed to himself, declaring that as number 10 on the alliance’s slate of Knesset candidates, along with the number 2 on the list, Shaffir, he would lead the “sharpest, most biting, most between-the-eyes campaign.” He “forgot” to mention Nitzan Horowitz, Meretz chief and the leader of the new alliance.

The motivation of seemingly incompatible brides and grooms from the political right and left to walk down the aisle ahead of the Sept. 17 elections stems from one particular feature of Israel's election system — the electoral threshold. The threshold of having to win four seats to enter the Knesset keeps some small parties out of the parliament due to their winning an insufficient percentage of votes. This vector sometimes erases ideological differences on the right and the left, among Jewish parties and Arab parties, and turns the Knesset into just another workplace. Ideologies are sidelined for the sake of mergers as alliances that guarantee, at least in theory, the small parties an above-the-threshold electoral result.

Hardest hit by this phenomenon are the prospects for negotiations with the Palestinians on a permanent arrangement as part of a regional peace deal. Electoral threshold trauma has led the flag-bearers of a diplomatic solution — as opposed to those advocating management of the conflict — to sideline the issue to the point of almost burying it.

Although Grossman expressed reservations about the absence of the word “occupation” from Barak’s vocabulary, he also expressed concern that without the merger, Meretz would find itself morally right but politically wrong, risking its future and influence. As a result, former Knesset member Mossi Raz, the most dominant and consistent Meretz opponent of the occupation, was bumped from fifth place on the Democratic Camp list of candidates to 12th.

Fear of the electoral threshold was also the matchmaker in the union between Labor, led by Amir Peretz — who has also had a checkered political past, bouncing around Am Ehad, Labor, Hatenua and the Zionist Camp — and the small Gesher, headed by Orly Levy-Abekassis. In 2015, Peretz proudly presented a peace plan calling for negotiations on a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders and the division of Jerusalem into Israeli and Palestinian capitals. Several months earlier, he had been a member of the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing Naftali Bennett, for whom a freeze in negotiations with the Palestinians and the nurturing of the settlements was a guiding light. Levy-Abekassis’ record on these issues is a lengthy presentation on the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu, which advocates the transfer of Israel’s Arab minority from its homes. She left the party after its chair, Avigdor Liberman, failed to bring her into Netanyahu's government when he joined it in 2016.

Liberman is the person responsible for the ideological hodge-podge in Arab voting constituencies. In 2014, he authored a bill raising the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25%, the equivalent of four Knesset seats, hoping that the smaller Arab parties would fail to surpass it and be excluded from the Knesset. Instead, he created a magic glue that bound secular Arabs with members of the Islamic Movement, advocates of the two-state solution with proponents of a multinational state. Four Arab parties advocating different ideologies and worldviews joined forces against the electoral threshold, creating the Joint List, which won 13 Knesset seats in the 2015 elections. They even managed to overcome the hurdle of allocating slots on their list of candidates. Prior to the April 9 elections, the Joint List had disbanded, but it has now reunited ahead of the Sept. 17 balloting.

The stinging failure of the New Right to cross the electoral threshold in the April 9 elections triggered an anxiety attack on the political right. So powerful is the angst that rabbis and politicos who advocate separation of the sexes in the public domain and refuse to even shake a woman’s hand have crowned a secular woman, Ayelet Shaked, to lead them as head of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, the United Right. Shaked did her compulsory military service in mixed units, including the Golani Brigade, where women serve alongside men. She even praised former army chief Gadi Eizenkot for his “serious and thorough” work to ensure that men and women can serve in mixed units.

Thus, in this case as well, one can see how fear of the electoral threshold can sideline ideological differences. Senior United Right member Bezalel Smotrich wrote in 2017 that anyone approving of mixed-gender military service should be “sectioned in an insane asylum.” He even called on young religious men to evade the draft as long as the army has mixed units. Shaked’s political sidekick, Bennett, wrote at the time, “Anyone who thinks I should discriminate against a person on the grounds of his orientation, sex or skin color, will come up against a total veto,” citing from Proverbs of the Fathers, “Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God” (3:14). Nowadays, Bennett stands alongside the chair of the United Right, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who views homosexuality as a deviation requiring “conversion therapy.” He is also joining Smotrich, who sponsored a “Bestiality Parade,” to counter the Gay Pride Parade, and who pitched a fit when an Arab woman was assigned a hospital bed next to his wife in the maternity ward.

In recent weeks, Israelis have been inundated morning, noon and night with the word “unions.” The hourly news has led with reports about the developments in contacts to forge an alliance between the New Right and the United Right, a breakthrough in negotiations between Barak and Horowitz, difficulties in talks between Shaked and Itamar Ben-Gvir of the radical right and disputes between the Arab parties Balad and Hadash over the 12th slot on their Knesset list. The rationale of the center left is that the end — bringing down the Netanyahu regime — justifies the means. On the right side of the political map, to achieve the end — preserving the regime — everyone is willing to hold their nose.

What will become of all these “unions” if they cross the electoral threshold and take their seats in parliament? Will they survive the frost on the opposition benches? Will Lt. Gen. (res.) Barak, whose government (1999 to 2000) approved the construction of thousands of housing units across the Green Line, support a demand by Meretz to completely freeze settlement expansion? Can a government led by the Blue and White alliance and its leader Benny Gantz rely on all the Joint List members, including Balad, to support his government in its hour of need? What will Shaked do if Smotrich conditions his support for the defense budget on disbanding mixed military units? How will representatives of the New Right in the Knesset vote when Rabbi Peretz proposes legislation applying Israeli sovereignty to Area C of the West Bank and the Jewish minority only, disenfranchising Palestinian residents?

Indeed, sometimes a marriage of convenience holds a couple together better than love. When love and interest are not grounded in shared values, however, the marriage disintegrates, and the home collapses.

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