The Knesset passed a bill on Tuesday that will raise the threshold needed for parties to enter the parliament of the only democracy in the Middle East, a move denounced by opponents as aimed at disenfranchising the Arab minority.
The vote was 67-0, but could scarcely be called unanimous, since all the opposition parties were boycotting over allegedly undemocratic tactics employed by the government coalition, severely limiting debate on that and other controversial bills.
Isaac Herzog (Labor), the head of the opposition, called it “a step of dictatorship.” “This is how our democracy is shattering in front of our eyes,” he said.
The bill raises the threshold from 2 percent of the vote to 3.25 percent, meaning parties will have to win at least four seats to enter, likely to hurt the small Arab parties unless they coalesce in the next election.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defended the reform in remarks to the Likud faction ahead of the vote, saying “the people of Israel need a strong and stable government and governability, and fewer splinter parties.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Tuesday derided the opposition as a group of “whiners, post-Zionists, and terrorist representatives.” The electoral reform bill was strongly backed by Lieberman.
“Every time I heard [Herzog] I had to reach for a tissue to wipe away my tears. He’s always crying and whining, the hypocrisy here screams to the heavens since those same people who are now fearful over the fate of Israeli democracy themselves submitted bills raising the minimum threshold.”
Left and center politicians and activists have long advocated a higher threshold, arguing that coalition-making gives small parties disproportionate leverage and hampers effective governance.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein is worried that the opposition’s taste for the dramatic could cause a diplomatic incident when Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron comes to speak at the Knesset this week.
Cameron’s address to the Knesset on Wednesday may have to be cancelled, said Edelstein, if he cannot ensure that opposition MKs will behave themselves.
Edelstein told opposition leaders: “I demand that you do not sabotage Cameron’s visit. As long as you protest in a political framework, it is acceptable, but some things are untenable. This is a visit by a state leader.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) said that some MKs are threatening to interrupt Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech, so it’s better for the whole opposition to walk out when Netanyahu takes the stand.
The Knesset Speaker’s office is preparing for the worst, explaining that canceling Cameron’s speech is “the most extreme scenario, but it’s possible. We hope we don’t get to that point.”
A Herzog spokesman promised that the government has nothing to fear. “Cameron’s dignity will be preserved no matter what,” he said.
Labor faction chairman Eitan Cabel told Walla reporter Omri Nachmias: “The pressure is unnecessary. No provocation will hurt Cameron.”
The other key clause of the electoral reform bill, which was a key demand of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party during coalition negotiations, mandates that the government cannot exceed 18 ministers and four deputy ministers. The new law also does away with the “minister without portfolio” title.
The new law also aims at narrowing the opposition latitude for parliamentary maneuver by requiring it to name an alternate prime minister as a precondition for submitting no-confidence measures.