About three weeks ago, Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner’s article, “The Tyranny of the Minority,” was published in the International Herald Tribune and NY Times online; he wrote in support of the government’s initiative to raise the threshold for getting into the Knesset from two to four percent of the vote. Rosner mentions Arab and Meretz objections that its main intent or impact would be to wipe out the Arab parties, but he suggests that Arab parties could coalesce with Jewish parties. This is how he put it, first giving due mention to the most cogent argument against this change:
The four parties that wouldn’t make the cut are the centrist Kadima party (which holds 2 seats now) and the three parties of the Arab bloc: the United Arab List (4 seats), Hadash (4 seats) and Balad (3 seats).
“Your aim is to banish the Arab M.K.’s,” Zahava Gal-On, leader of the leftist Meretz party, cried out during the recent debate to members of the governing coalition who proposed the reform. “This bill is shameful.”
I asked [Amnon] Rubinstein [a liberal legal scholar who was once a leader in Meretz] … what he thought of these concerns. He was almost dismissive. The reform would merely put Israel where many other countries with similar electoral systems are: Germany has a 5 percent threshold, and Sweden a 4 percent threshold. As Rubinstein also argued, it could prevent Jewish extremists from squeezing into Parliament again, as they have occasionally done in the past. What’s more, he added, “The purpose of the change is to force smaller parties to merge into larger parties.”
Merge? The Knesset’s Arab members see this idea as another sign of ignorance or racism on the part of Jewish Israelis. “There’s a huge gap between me — as a secular, modern, enlightened nationalist — and the communists or the Islamists,” Jamal Zahalka, a member of Balad, said during the debate, referring to the Hadash party and the United Arab List, respectively. “It’s paternalistic to say: ‘Run as a single party. You’re all Arabs.’” [Exactly the point made by Meretz activist, Yifat Solel, when we met her in NYC on July 9.]
He has a point. But he’s missing another point: If Arab [parties] can’t overcome their differences, they still have plenty of other options, including to unite with “Jewish” parties.
. . . Raising the threshold . . . would fix the current system’s main pitfall, which is to discourage compromise among all parties by encouraging the proliferation of small ones. . . .
A few days prior to Rosner’s piece, I wrote on “Israel’s need for electoral reform” with much the same perspective. While noting unhappily that it seems unlikely, I suggested a joint list of Meretz with Hadash (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality).
Rosner’s suggestion that Israel’s Arab citizens vote for parties that accord them second-class status can’t be taken seriously. Palestinian-Nationalist Balad voters should vote for Jewish-Nationalist Likud? The religiously conservative UAL would team up with the religiously conservative Shas?
Rubinstein’s comparisons to Germany and Sweden (if indeed Rosner gives accurate exposition of his views) are not relevant under the current circumstances in Israel and Palestine. Maybe one day, but not now.
The Meretz position on the bill, BTW, can be found at http://meretz.org.il (Hebrew). Meretz MK Michal Rozin sums up the Meretz response best, when she says: The government’s, “treatment of all Arabs as a monolith is racist treatment. [Yair Lapid’s] statement about the ‘Zuabis’ [Lapid’s post-election public refusal to cooperate with predominantly Arab parties to block the formation of a Netanyahu coalition, in which he likened all Arab MKs to Balad MK Hanan Zuabi]eventually gives rise to Yesh Atid legislating a ‘Zuabis law'”.
And Meretz MK Issawi Freij correctly warns what will happen when the law removes Israel’s Arab citizens from the political map: “Whoever you remove from the political game … finds a way to have an influence outside the [political] framework, and this is a very dangerous slope for democracy and the State of Israel.”
It is widely observed that Israel has the most dysfunctional system of proportional representation of any democracy. I focused upon the possibility of a joint list between Meretz and Hadash. Balad and Likud obviously would not go together, but I’m not so sure that there couldn’t be some basis for an alliance of religious Muslims with religious Jews, as long as they accept that they must live with each other; it would be their mutual respect for a religious way of life that they’d have in common.
It may well be that a more representative reform would be to introduce geographic-based constituency districts. Then Arab party MKs could be elected from the Galilee, and perhaps from the Negev as well.