Sherwin Pomerantz

Israel takes a long overdue democratic step

Israel’s Knesset’s passing of a law this week to raise the minimum threshold to gain seats in that legislative body to 3.25% from 2% was a major achievement in making the country more democratic.

For those who are not familiar with the election procedure here, Israel votes by party and not by candidate. Those parties that, in the past, were able to garner 2% of more of the vote were then entitled to seats in proportion to the number of votes they received. So, for example, in the current Knesset there are 12 parties with the largest one having 31 seats and the smallest just two. As a result, all governments of Israel are coalitions where the Prime Minister, who is usually the head of the largest party, is asked to form the government.

While the principle of a coalition government is basically a sound one, when there are so many parties (at one point we had more than 20 parties in one Knesset) in order to form a coalition with an operating majority, the smaller parties wield extraordinary power as they are needed to round out the ruling coalition. As a result we have seen plenty of cases where parties of 2-3 people have caused prior governments to pass what was very minority influence legislation in order for the prime minister to maintain the coalition.

The battle to increase the threshold goes back many years. When I was national president of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, the umbrella organization of immigrants from North America, 23 years ago this was a major initiative of ours and we were joined by other groups who understood the folly of having too much power wielded by too few people. So this is real progress.    

But of course, this is Israel and the complainers are out in force today.  The Israeli Arab community is complaining loudly that their three parties with 4, 4, and 3 members respectively will find themselves squeezed out of the next Knesset. But, in truth, the reason 21% of the population in Israel only has 9% of the parliamentary seats is because not enough Israeli Arabs choose to vote. Certainly it is not the responsibility of the government to neutralize the effect of people not voting by keeping the threshold low. And the same is true of other segments of the population who feel disenfranchised by the new law.

In addition, the new law has reduced the number of ministers (i.e. cabinet members) to 18 from the current bloated figure of 29 (can you believe that 24% of the Knesset members are ministers?). In addition, the number of deputy ministers (now 8) will also be reduced and the worthless title of minister without portfolio will be eliminated as well. This is a major step as a minister is an expensive budget burden for the state given the entourage, the car/driver and the other perks that come with each position.

It has taken 66 years, we still don’t have the constitution that was supposed to be written within a year after the country’s founding and the government is still too dependent on fractional coalition politics, but progress has been made this week and the country’s legislative functions can only benefit from these changes.

In an area of the world where the meaning of democracy is dramatically different from how it is understood in the west, Israel remains the one example of a country that somewhat successfully wrestles with the problems associated with crafting a democratic state against all odds.  May it continue to progress on that front.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 32 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, regional entities and Invest Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Former Chairperson of the Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a Board Member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.