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August 3, 2015 / 18 Av, 5775
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Israeli Democracy Dealt Blow with ‘Governance Act’

Last night, the "only democracy in the Middle East" became a lot less democracy and a lot more Middle East.
Left wing Meretz party leader Zahava Gal-On wept at the Knesset podium over the passage of a new law requiring each party to win close to 5 seats before receiving their first seat.

Left wing Meretz party leader Zahava Gal-On wept at the Knesset podium over the passage of a new law requiring each party to win close to 5 seats before receiving their first seat.
Photo Credit: FLASH90

Last night the Knesset voted to raise the threshold vote from 2 to 4 percent. This means that a political party must win 4.8 seats before it can receive its first seat in the Knesset. It was presented by the Likud-Beiteinu faction as a necessary measure to enable Israel’s government to govern without the constant fear of being toppled by a walkout of one of its minor coalition members.

The new threshold would effectively eliminate the small parties in Israel, forcing them to align in large power blocks or disappear. Meanwhile, their votes should be siphoned off to four or five major parties.

There’s an inherent problem in Israel’s parliamentary system, which has made it difficult for coalition governments over the past 65 years: the executive, meaning the prime minister, is also a member of the legislative body. In order to stay in power, he or she must juggle the Knesset membership around to maintain a majority of at least 61 out of 120 members. If they go below 60, their government is likely to lose a vote of no confidence (of which it endures about 10 a week), and the nation must go to new elections.

Under the U.S. constitution, it is perfectly fine for the president to govern while both houses of Congress are in the hands of a party other than his own. He will serve out his term of four years (unless he is impeached), and would simply have to haggle with the opposition party to get his legislation through.

An attempt in the recent past to let the voter pick the prime minister in a separate vote ended up with a disappointment to anyone who thought they would attain executive stability this way – and the separate PM vote was scrapped. It appears that the only real solution would be for Israel to switch to a presidential system, with an executive who governs outside the Knesset.

But such a change would be rejected by the smaller parties, who get their life’s blood—i.e. patronage jobs—from their leaders’ stints as government ministers. A cabinet run by an executive who isn’t himself an MK would be staffed by technocrats rather than by politicians, and the smaller parties would be left out to dry, unable to suckle on the government’s teat.

The new “Governance Act” that was passed last night would presumably have the same effect on the smaller parties: they would become history. This means the elimination of all the parties that currently boast fewer than 5 MKs: Hadash (Arabs) has 4, Ra’am Ta’al-Mada (Arabs) has 4, National Democratic Assembly (Arabs) has 3, and Kadima has 2.

You may have noticed a recurring ethnic group among the Knesset factions which would be eliminated by the Governance Act. Those 11 “Arab” seats would be eliminated, unless, of course, these three factions, with vastly different platforms (one is Communist, the other two not at all). are able to unite around their single common denominator, namely that they’re not Jews.

The political thinker behind this power grab is MK Avigdor Liberman, who’s been dreaming about a Knesset where his faction, Likud-Beiteinu, could win a decisive majority, once and for all. His henchman, MK David Rotem, was the bill’s sponsor. But the law of unintended consequences and double-edged swords is strong in Israel, and the new bill could just as easily be just what the Left needed to stage a resounding comeback.

Labor (15 MKs) and Meretz (6 MKs) are really the old Mapai, Achdut Ha’avoda and Mapam, the three Zionist workers parties. Hadash is really a remnant of Maki and Rakach, the two Communist parties which split off Mapam. If the leftist establishment got it together—as it did in 1992—it could cobble Labor, Meretz, the Arabs, Kadima and Livni to create a juggernaut of more than 35, possibly 40 seats.

This kind of unity could only be forged by a common feeling of a great betrayal by the right-wing government – and, what do you know, judging by last night’s drama over the threshold vote, such a sense of betrayal is permeating the smaller parties.

One after another, opposition MKs came up to the podium and used up their time to keep silent. MK Jamal Zahalka strapped duct tape over his mouth. MK Ahmad Tibi stood with his back to the plenum. Merets chair zehava Gal-on wept, her hands over her face.

About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.

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27 Responses to “Israeli Democracy Dealt Blow with ‘Governance Act’”

  1. Stuart Wragg says:

    Smaller parties do a country more harm than good as they focus on micro issues. Democracy is about majority rules, stability, rule of law etc. it is not each and everyone gets to have their own way. That is called "potential for anarchy", red tape, dilly dally, compromise above national interest etc. Democracy is about the people electing a government and keeping them in power only because they do the will of the people. If you do not like the government you vote them out. If you want the people to support you, in order to form a political party, you work hard to get this. Simple. You can please some of the people some of the time but you will never please all of the people all the time. Democracy. Go Israel.

  2. Yori Yanover says:

    Stuart Wragg · You're confusing the executive and the legislator. Granted, stability is a good value in governing; but legislation can only work well if, in fact, it represents the highly particular needs of all the many communities in the land. By eliminating them from parliament, we actually do more to destabilize lae and order, because we're forcing those smaller groups underground.

  3. Getting small parties out of the system is the first step towards making all elected officials responsive to the electorate – rather than to a small slice of it or just a particular issue.

    The insanity of having 4 religious parties – each making its own deals, or 3 labor-friendly groups, or 5 on the right or 4 on the left is dilutive of actual legislative impact.

    And as to its effect on democracy – what is so "democratic" about a collection of special interests vying with each other as to which can milk the most from a system to which none have any interest in contributing.

  4. Yori Yanover see above – you may have a lot of energy to crank out a ton of articles, but you really could use a refresher course or 2 in government

  5. Yori Yanover says:

    Charles Hoffman · You're repeating a lot of stuff you hear on television or read in the papaers, and I respect that, but just because you heard some guy in a suit say it don't make it true. We have in the U.S. House delegations from 50 states plus a few territories, and they each represent vastly different special interests. The idea is that they all bring their different interests to the table and haggle and fight and threaten and promise and come out with the best possible legislation. Special interests are not a bad thing, they're the life's blood of a democracy.

    As to elected officials being more responsive to the voter because they belong to big parties – that's just monkey talk. The fact is the smaller parties are by far more attuned to the plight of suffering individuals and present a great deal more legislation than do the large parties. You should know that even after the threshold goes into effect, there's still no direct elections based on districts in Israel, so there's zero correlation between bigger parties and responsiveness. Kindly examine this.

    And, yes, a collection of many little parties can work together marvelously in committee and hammer out very good laws, as they have been doing. The "Governance Act" has nothing to do with the legislative process, rather it is about the stability of coalition governments. Logically speaking, they could set the threshold at 10 percent, why not? A violation of the voter's right to choose is a violation of the voter's right to choose at any percentage point. It's the same with term limits. In both cases Government decides for the voter which candidates he should pick.

    A much better solution, as I suggested in the article, is to separate the executive from the legislator, and permit a situation where the executive, be it PM or president, be allowed to govern without a majority support in the legislator.

    As to my knowledge of government, to which you refer in a separate comment, the publisher and editor of a local public affairs and news magazine for 8 years in Lower Manhattan, and member in good standing of the Harry S. Truman Democratic Club on the Lower East Side, I know personally quite a few New York State legislators, including some of the most powerful state assembly and senate members. Trust me, I know government.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Meeretz, Livni, and Arabs oppose it. Therefore it is a good law.

  7. Alan Kardon says:

    Maybe having politicians that represent "for the people" is better than being loyal to the party.

  8. Alan Kardon says:

    How is the government doing in your country?

  9. Alan Kardon says:

    How is the government doing in your country?

  10. Anonymous says:

    Yori Yanover
    Yori, a democracy is simply the step before tyranny. America is NOT a democracy – it is a Constitutional Republic. Unfortunately our elected officials are trying to make it into a democracy with the intended effect of taking away our rights.
    Israel needs a proper Constitution. That is more important that the number of parties and the size of the parties. Without the rights of citizens guaranteed and inviolable, governments can do anything they wish to do, as they do in Israel.
    A good friend of mine, a journalist in Canada, told me that he thought that the Canadian system of government takes the best parts of the American system and the British system, and he recommends it for Israel. Maybe you want to look into it?
    All the best

  11. Other countries, such as Germany, have a minimum threshold, too, and nobody accuses them of being "less democratic and more Middle East". There is nothing magically "democratic" about a 2% minimum, and nothing all of a sudden "undemocratic" about a 5% minimum. A higher minimum forces particular interests to work together with other groups in order to have any influence on the national scene and makes the government more efficient and less beholden to particular interests. Why should all those little tails be permitted to wag the dog?

  12. Yori Yanover says:

    milousdad – Ultimately, any system is judged by its ability to deliver the largest amount of goods and services to the broadest segment of the population possible. In that context, I don't care if it's a monarchy, a military junta, a benevolent dictatorship — give us food, shelter and clothing, law and order, healthcare and education. If you can't, I don't care if you're a democracy, I don't want you.

    Over the years I've lowered my expectations a whole lot.

  13. Michael Dar says:

    That the Left and Arabs were upset means the law is in our best national interest. Now the Arabs will have to unite and start serving their community and care for their well-being..instead of being a subversive and hostile mouth-piece for the Arab-Muslim world and the Fakestinians. As for the Lefties they will join the dustbin of history where they belong…

  14. Stuart Wragg says:

    Alan-The government in my country

  15. Stuart Wragg says:

    Alan – sorry, pushed a wrong button. The government in my country is dominant and elected by the majority. They are not kind to minorities such as myself but ultimately, they are the elected government. Our main oppposition party is good and starting to gain support. The problem is simply that there are so many small and insignificant parties that split the opposition and generally dont achieve anything exept making a noise about everything else other than the important aapects that affect our country. A seat in parliament is therefore wasted by these parties because they standd alone and have no impact on decisions. In lower levels of government, i.e. local government, these small parties often hold the balance of power. What happens is that they flip from one side to the other, causing a continous change of power, the councils spend more time politicking because of this and service delivery which is the mana

  16. Stuart Wragg says:

    Agaain pushed a wrong button. Its been a long day. My apologies. Service delivery which is the mandate of local government is disrupted because of nstability in local councils due to small parties flipping sides.

  17. For me the best democracies are in Canada and Switzerland, Israel must start to think his polytical way, so to get a graeter and efficient democratic goverment for the best of the Israel's people.

  18. For me the best democracies are in Canada and Switzerland, Israel must start to think his polytical way, so to get a graeter and efficient democratic goverment for the best of the Israel's people.

  19. For me the best democracies are in Canada and Switzerland, Israel must start to think his polytical way, so to get a graeter and efficient democratic goverment for the best of the Israel's people.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Yori Yanover
    You missed what I said, that a "democracy" is bad. Democracy is simply mob rule. Ben Franklin said that democracy is 2 foxes and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. In a Constitutional Republic the sheep is well-armed.
    Israel needs a constitution which protects the Jewish character of the state and the rights of her citizens.
    Sure, and a benevolent dictatorship is actually the best form of government, but since George Washington, there haven't been too many qualified candidates, although I would probably take Moshe Feiglin.

  21. Nanette CohenRayman says:

    so, Yori, WHY do you want the arabs to have so much of a say? seems that one of them was PRO-flotilla….


  23. Michael Dar says:

    Sounds good but what if they don't let us live in peace?

  24. Michael Dar. I agree with you totally.
    Time for Israel to adopt a new parliamentary system. Like the US has Dems and Republicans (2 parties) which makes both parties stronger.
    Israel needs to be rid small insignificant parties which only causes problems.
    They should be either Dems or Republicans ( or whatever name they want.) But drop all the old names and follow the US sustem.
    There should also be no PM, but a President who will be Commander in Chief.

  25. Michael Dar. I agree with you totally.
    Time for Israel to adopt a new parliamentary system. Like the US has Dems and Republicans (2 parties) which makes both parties stronger.
    Israel needs to be rid small insignificant parties which only causes problems.
    They should be either Dems or Republicans ( or whatever name they want.) But drop all the old names and follow the US sustem.
    There should also be no PM, but a President who will be Commander in Chief.

  26. Time for Livni to stay home and look after the cooking.

  27. Israel needs to have a constituency system, where the best man/woman in a party is selected to represent that party in National elections.
    Time to stop appointing people. They must show their constuents that they are the best for their party and Israel. This is the British system.

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