Mar. 12, 2014 by Darius
Earlier today, the Israeli Knesset passed a series of bills that mostly attracted media attention because one of them would partially end the military exemptions currently enjoyed by the ultra-Orthodox community. Today’s bills contains two other provisions, though, that might ultimately change Israel more than drafting the ultra-Orthodox will.
The first relates to the basic structure of Israeli democracy. Right now, Israel’s electoral system gives any party that achieves more than 2% of the vote seats in the Knesset. Most other countries that have a similar system, like Germany, have a higher vote threshold (Germany’s is 5%). Israel’s system means that the Knesset is very fractious. In 2013, 34 parties stood for election, and 12 parties received Knesset seats. The new law will increase the vote threshold to 3.25%. It may not seem like a lot, but it will mean that Israeli politics is dominated by fewer parties and especially the ruling party. If the law were applied to the 2013 elections, three parties that won seats under the old system would have been excluded. The new law seems to be aimed especially at the Arab parties – or maybe it’s just coincidence that two of the three parties that would have been excluded under the new rules are Arab parties.
The second is potentially even more contentious. It mandates that a national referendum must be held before the Israeli government can approve withdrawal from “sovereign lands,” including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (but not the West Bank). Such a referendum could be a poison pill in any peace negotiation. However, this particular bill could be ruled unconstitutional by the Israeli Supreme Court as a similar previous measure was. If it isn’t, it could be a barrier to any peace deal that involves joint jurisdiction of Jerusalem. The bill faces a final vote on Thursday. It is considered likely to be finalized, especially given that many of the parties opposed to some or all three of these bills chose to boycott the Knesset vote, leaving the floor to the ruling coalition.