Minor Change Marks Major Shift in Vote

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published February 24, 2006, issue of February 24, 2006.
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JERUSALEM — The change in the election law looked minor, barely more significant than the flapping of a butterfly’s wings. Yet the decision to raise the percentage of the national vote that a party needs to enter the Knesset is already reshaping Israel’s political map. It could eliminate parties, cut the number of Arab Knesset members, perhaps tilt the balance between right and left.

Two years ago, the Knesset voted to raise the bar in Israel’s proportional election system to 2% of votes cast, from 1.5% The amendment to the election law attracted considerably less attention in Israel than, say, the Texas redistricting fight did in the United States. This week, a staffer at one polling institute had to be reminded that the threshold had been lifted.

Supporters of the change said that it would bring more stability to the political system by reducing the number of parties in parliament. Another reading, admittedly more cynical, is that large and medium-sized parties joined together to reduce competition from small ones, the political equivalent of chain stores eliminating independent shops. Obliquely, though, the change also serves as a reminder of the advantages of Israel’s proportional election system — weird as it may seem to American eyes — and of why the Palestinians might be better off had they embraced the Israeli method.

A half-percent increase may not seem like much, but changes add up. All of Israel votes as one district, with voters casting a single ballot for a party rather than for individual candidates. Originally, winning just 1% of the vote was enough to earn a party a place in the Knesset. The jump to 1.5% came at the start of the 1990s. Since then, massive aliya from the former Soviet Union also has enlarged the electorate. To get into the Knesset in 1988, a party had to convince fewer than 23,000 people to vote for it; in 2003, it needed 47,000. This year, depending on voter turnout, the number could reach 75,000.

Israel inherited its proportional system from pre-state Jewish institutions in Palestine, where it was important “to include as many groups as possible in a voluntary community,” noted political scientist Asher Arian, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “You did not want to punish people because they only got 48% of the vote” — as happens in a two-way race in an American congressional district, in which voters for the losing party end up with no representation. That’s not even mentioning the risks of a three-way race, in which, say, a majority voting for either Gore or Nader means a victory for Bush.

Indeed, in the Israeli system, even tiny ideological factions get a voice and are co-opted into the parliamentary framework. That may explain the relatively high voter turnout: officially 67% of all adult Israelis in the previous election. (The actual turnout was higher, because the rolls include hundreds of thousands of citizens living abroad and effectively unable to vote.) The classic American complaint that both parties are the same vanishes; if you don’t like a major brand, you can choose a small designer party. Moreover, the makeup of parliament is a highly accurate picture of the electorate.

Contrast that with the Palestinian elections in late January: Hamas won 74 of 132 seats in the legislature, even though it didn’t get a majority of the popular vote.

Palestinian voters cast one ballot in an Israeli-style proportional race for 66 of the 132 members of the legislature. A second ballot in district races chose the remaining members. In the proportional race, the Hamas ticket won 44% of the vote against 41% for Fatah, with the remainder going to smaller secular parties — a result fitting expectations that the Islamic movement would do well but not win a majority.

The results were skewed in the district races, though, with the non-Hamas vote split between Fatah’s official candidates, other Fatah activists running on their own and additional candidates. So even though Hamas got only 41% of the district vote, it swept most of those races. If the Palestinian Authority had adopted the Israeli system fully, the Hamas “landslide” never would have happened.

In Israel, the price of accurate representation is the fragmented parliament. Advocates of raising the electoral threshold say that the move will force small parties to unite. On the religious side of Israeli politics, that has happened. The two small, feuding Ashkenazic ultra-Orthodox parties — the mainly Hasidic Agudat Yisrael and the Misnagdic Degel Hatorah — once again papered over their differences and agreed to run on a joint list, as they have done every election since the threshold went up to 1.5%.

More significant is the veteran National Religious Party’s last-minute assent to run on a joint ticket with the far-right National Union. The two parties reached agreement just before the February 9 deadline for submitting their list of candidates, after months of on-and-off negotiations. The National Union’s constituency is the pro-settler religious right. Justifying the alliance, NRP leader Zevulun Orlev said it means that “the crocheted skullcaps, the religious Zionists, will appear on one ticket” with more clout.

But for several years Orlev has been trying to soften the NRP’s own hard-right image as a party concerned only with the whole land of Israel, by stressing education and social issues. The alliance puts him back in the same party with hard-liners who angrily left the NRP in the past. “We had great misgivings because we did not want to erase the NRP’s ideological identity,” Orlev admitted while claiming that the united ticket has accepted his platform. In fact, the NRP approached the deal like the groom at a shotgun wedding, and the gun was arguably the new threshold: Polls showed that the party, once a pillar of Israeli politics, hovered on the edge of getting into the Knesset.

So electoral change has reduced religious choices. But then, suggested political scientist David Newman of Ben-Gurion University, the NRP has “lost its constituency.” Politically moderate religious Zionists, he said, feel integrated into wider society and therefore vote for other parties. The hard right preferred the National Union.

The three parties representing Israel’s Arab minority could be hardest hit by the new electoral rule. The change “is aimed against Arab representation,” charged Knesset Member Talab El-Sana of the United Arab List. “It doesn’t endanger the Likud or Labor, but rather the Arab parties, which are all just on the edge. It’s a racist law.”

El-Sana sought but failed to bring the other Arab parties into a single front. Yet there are significant tactical differences between the three parties. The United Arab List — which includes one wing of the Israeli Islamic movement — is the most willing to horse-trade with the Israeli establishment to help its constituency. El-Sana notes that it agreed to abstain rather than vote against the 2005 budget after the government signed an agreement to fund schools, industrial development and other projects in Arab towns. It also supported the Gaza disengagement rather than take the other Arab parties’ all-or-nothing approach to Palestinian demands for independence.

A single Arab front would have reduced choices. But running separately could mean failure at the polls. El-Sana said that if fewer Arabs are elected, “instead of the Arab community exerting influence through the Knesset, it will try to exert influence through a struggle outside…. We want representation, and to express our anger through the Knesset.” In other words, fewer parties might mean more stability in parliament — and less in Israeli society.

The wider balance of right, center and left also could be distorted. At the political center, the stridently secularist Shinui Party has split in two. For now, neither half looks likely to win 2% of the vote. The same goes for ex-general Uzi Dayan’s anti-corruption Tafnit (Turning Point) Party.

If those parties’ centrist votes go to waste, and one or two of the Arab parties also fall short of the threshold, the next Knesset will be to the right of the electorate that chose it. The mechanics of an election, it turns out, matter almost as much as the votes. But then, any American who lived through November 2000 knows that.

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