Jewish Journal

The unintended consequences of unserious legislation

A general view shows the plenum as Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem October 31, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

Three years ago, Israel’s legislature, the Knesset, decided to raise the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25%. That is, it decided to determine that no party can enter the Knesset without getting at least 3.25% of the vote. The decision was greeted with outrage. Controversy ensued.

They are trying to eliminate the Arab parties, the critics cried. “Your aim is to banish the Arab M.K.’s,” Zahava Galon, leader of the leftist Meretz party, cried out during the debate to members of the governing coalition who proposed the reform, “this bill is shameful.” This action was added to the long list of supposed crimes of a rightwing coalition running amok. No matter that only a few years earlier some of the same people who now complained about raising the threshold had made the opposite argument — that the threshold is too low and thus enables small and marginal parties to enter the Knesset and blackmail the coalition.

Come election day, the outcry proved ridiculous. If the right had hopes — and it certainly did have hopes — to gain from raising the threshold, the voters made it regret the hasty decision. On the right, almost four seats were lost because of Israelis giving their vote to a party that did not pass the higher threshold (it would have entered the Knesset with the old threshold). On the left, Arab representation did not shrink. In fact, it grew to its highest level ever. The new threshold forced the politicians of the Arab bloc to unite, and their united Arab party was able to get 13 seats in the Knesset.

Both sides deserve mockery. Both were unserious. The right was unserious by thinking that it can easily manipulate the electorate; the left was unserious by instinctively rallying against a political move that ended up helping the left.

Lesson learned? Apparently, no lessons are learned in the political arena. Three years after failing with one unserious move, the coalition is now plotting another unserious move: to undo the change and lower the electoral threshold back to where it was. Reportedly, the prime minister supports the change but currently cannot move forward with it because of the opposition of the Shas Party.

Why would Shas oppose such a move? Because the party that was a near miss in the last election is Shas’s rival, Eli Yishai’s ultra-rightwing party. According to reports, Shas leader Arye Deri told an associate that by initiating the lowering of the threshold “Netanyahu stabbed us in the back.” Deri added that “Shas will grow stronger in the next election and doesn’t need any favors from Netanyahu… he is initiating moves against Shas without consulting with us… Lowering the electoral threshold will not pass — don’t even try it.”

Netanyahu is not going to ruin his friendship with Shas over the threshold. But this doesn’t mean that his legislative aides aren’t going to try and convince Shas to let it pass. They want it — as coalition chairman MK David Bitan acknowledged this morning on Israeli radio — to bolster the right-wing camp. Since the attempt to manipulate the vote did not quite work, maybe a change back to the old threshold will succeed.

Well, will it? The lesson from Israel’s last election is that one ever knows.

But two things are worth remembering:

1. Don’t believe the left when it calls every change a disaster and warns that every change might bring doom.

2. Don’t believe the right when it promises that with only a small change the political landscape will suddenly brighten.

These points are worth remembering especially today, when Israel’s Knesset begins its winter session and a period of many fights over many proposed laws. Know that most of these laws will never pass. Know that most of those that do pass will never have the intended and promised impact. That’s the unintended result of unserious legislation (Israel’s — and other countries’ — chronic disease).