I am extremely surprised to find myself supporting right-wing Israeli Knesset members, with whom I almost always disagree, against the international press liaison of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, ACRI, an organization that I greatly admire, but I find myself in complete disagreement with Marc Grey’s argument in Open Zion against raising the threshold for Israeli parliamentary elections.
With his examples from other countries, Grey presents some interesting ideas for the reform of Israel’s electoral system, but I can’t help feeling that they are all unnecessarily complex. On the other hand, the proposal, being discussed in a parliamentary committee headed by Likud Knesset Member David Rotem, to raise the threshold to 4 percent is a simple and useful first step toward reducing the ridiculously large number of Israeli parties.
It is true that there are important differences between the various parties representing the Arab citizens of Israel, but politics is the art of compromise, and political parties are always alliances of people with differing views who are able to unite on their most important aims.
Perhaps it is fortuitous that Grey’s presentation appears a day after the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the founder and spiritual mentor of Shas, the Orthodox Sephardi party. Yosef managed to unite religious and traditional Jews from North Africa, Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and many other Middle Eastern countries in Shas, creating a political alliance that focused on the deprived status of these citizens compared with that of Jews who hailed from Europe and the West. One can certainly argue about the policies implemented by that party, but nobody can deny that Shas made itself into a powerful political force in Israel.
If Israel’s Arab politicians would only follow the example of Shas, they could definitely exert similar influence on the political, social, and economic scene. The interests that unite them are certainly far more significant than the matters that divide them. Several of the leading Israeli Arab political figures are on record as admitting that it is far more a question of personalities and clans than political differences that prevent the Arab parties from getting together.
Urgent action is required to advance the economic development, grant adequate land reserves, create suitable planning frameworks, and improve the education of Israel’s Arab towns and villages. A united Arab party in the Knesset, which could be as large as Shas in its prime—or even larger—could become part of a coalition that would transform the situation of Israel’s Arab citizens, but, even if it remained in the opposition, a large Arab party could advance the interests of its constituents immeasurably. That would be one benefit of raising the voting threshold, but there are others.
In a society made up of so many different ethnic and religious groups as Israel, the Anglo Saxon first-past-the-post, or winner-take-all system is certainly inappropriate, so we should continue with some form of proportional representation, but that does not mean that we should be sentenced to malfunctioning anarchy.
Historically the contradictory pressures exerted by the multiplicity of parties has not been good for Israel. On the whole, our governments have not performed well. Raising the threshold, firstly to 4 percent, and ultimately to as much as 8 percent, will give us a chance to elect better functioning parliaments and governments. And in case this stress on a government that can govern alarms the liberal-minded, it should be pointed out that any Israeli government that would be formed is unlikely to become exaggeratedly powerful, bearing in mind that we possess a democratic watchdog in the form of an independent judiciary.
Because of its demographic make-up, it is unlikely that Israel will become a two-party state like the U.S., but the Knesset would be far more effective, and just as representative if it consisted of four major blocs: conservative-liberal, social democrat, Arabs, and religious. Such a Knesset would probably vote in a better government than any we have had so far.
In such a scenario the Arabs would probably make common cause with the social democrats; the religious are likely to link up with the conservative-liberal bloc, but there are other intriguing possibilities that could lead to the metamorphosis of Israeli society.
In conclusion, I appeal to my fellow Israeli liberals and left-wingers to reconsider their stand against raising the voting threshold. There are many anti-democratic proposals on the agenda of Israel’s right-wing that we should counter with the utmost vigor—for example efforts to sabotage organizations like ACRI by banning, or at least severely limiting, foreign funding. We must not waste our energy in opposing legislation that would almost certainly improve our democracy