Over the threshold: Israel’s new ‘governability’ laws entrench the settlements even further

Israel’s new suite of laws – the ‘governability bill’ – has made it harder for smaller parties to gain access to power and entrenches the settlements even further.

Palestinian protestors clash with Israeli security forces (not shown) in the West Bank village of Burin in March this year. Burin, a Palestinian settlement, has lost much land to Israel. Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP Photo / April 2014
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After years of gallantly attempting to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States is signalling that it will scale down its involvement as mediator. Publicly, the United States is blaming both the Palestinians and Israelis for the failure to implement the US secretary of state John Kerry’s current peace plan, but privately the Americans are pointing the finger at Israel.

Based on the cold facts of continued Israeli settlement construction and a general disregard for the peace process by all sides, one can barely fault the American geopolitical pivot. There might be more behind the desire to scale down in Israel and Palestine. A recent round of Israeli legislation, which critics have called an affront to democratic practice, just might have set off the alarm bells in Washington that are spurring change in America’s most important foreign policy battlefield.

From the outside, the Israeli parliament building in Jerusalem appears to be a structure cut from the image of hallowed democratic buildings that dot Europe. Dominantly perched above a park in West Jerusalem, the building’s clean lines reveal late 1950s western architectural influences. Sandwiched between the sleek Israeli Supreme Court building and the iconic white cylindrical cone of the Israel Museum, the parliament building inspires democratic aspirations despite the legislation that often comes out of it.

Don’t expect to find eastern architectural influences or, for that ­matter, any traces of historic Palestine in Israel’s governing building. This all-encompassing ode to everything ­European, seen not just in architecture but virtually all aspects of Israeli society, makes the recent bills passed in the country’s parliament all the more disconcerting.

In March, Israel passed three bills in a one package. The package was essentially immune from parliamentary opposition thanks to careful political manoeuvring by the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the parliamentary speaker Yuli Edelstein. Taken together they target the country’s minorities with sweeping legislation that suppresses the power of the few in favour of the majority. Perhaps the most aggressive bill of the package, the so-called “governability bill”, will raise the electoral threshold for parties to acquire representation in the next Israeli parliament. In effect, parties that represent the interests of Palestinian citizens of Israel will have to form one single voting bloc or risk not crossing the threshold.

Sitting in the dated cafeteria on the Knesset’s lower level, the Palestinian parliament member Ahmed Tibi looked restless when I interviewed him recently. Over the years, Tibi has come to be an outspoken and popular representative of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. His fiery speeches on the Knesset floor and the multiple attempts by right-wing members of parliament to ban him and his party have become a regular facet of the political life of the Knesset, fodder for the evening political talk shows.

While this particular encounter took place before the recent passing of laws that could see his party out of the parliament, his trepidation about the place of Palestinian citizens in Israeli political life hasn’t wavered.

“You need to understand that Israel is a Jewish and democratic country,” Tibi told me before storming off to his office. “It is democratic for the Jews and Jewish for everyone else.”

Admittedly, Tibi’s statement was verbose and direct but the underlying thesis has been again confirmed by the most current Knesset, just as it had by every Knesset that came before it. With the recent smattering of bills, Israel has underlined its secular nationalist governing structure.

It is a structure of government that is openly antagonistic toward both its ultra-­religious and Palestinian citizens. Ironically, these are exactly the sectors of society that will soon be the majority, due to their greater fertility rates compared with the secular sectors of Israel.

Since the founding of the country, legislators have tinkered with the threshold necessary for parties to gain seats in the parliament as an attempt to suppress the influence of the ultra-orthodox and Palestinians. Unlike parliamentary systems in the United Kingdom and much of Europe, which enable voting bodies composed of small numbers of large parties based on the geographic and population size of the countries, Israel has a proportional system.

The system, whose only parallel is in Japan, allows for a much wider range of parties, many of which have less than three representatives in parliament. In practice, this facet of the Israeli political system allows for smaller groups in Israeli society – namely the ultra-religious and Palestinian citizens – to gain representation in the parliament, reflecting the diversity of opinion in those minorities.

More often than not in the history of the Israeli parliament, the ultra-religious parties have acted as kingmakers in coalition governments, with the ability to extract handsome privileges in exchange for coalition votes.

Looking at the history of the threshold changes is revealing. The original electoral threshold of 0.8 per cent was raised to 1 per cent in 1951, to 2.5 per cent in 1992 and then lowered to 2 per cent in 2004, thanks to political concessions won by ultra-orthodox parties.

The new bill – which was initiated by the hardline Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and the former TV journalist turned political kingmaker and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and was passed in March – will raise the threshold to 3.5 per cent.

“The rhetoric behind the new election threshold law is about increasing the government’s ability to execute its politics – what is often referred to in Israeli political discourse as solving governance problems. However, the parties who are likely to be hurt the most are the two Palestinian parties and the Jewish-Palestinian non-Zionist party Hadash,” says the Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf.

“In other words, the law is, more than anything else, another burden on the representation of the Palestinian citizens in the Israeli parliament, which is already ­lacking.”

In an interview with the leading Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, the foreign minister Lieberman gloated that the bill will make it very difficult for Arab parties to unite and enter the parliament under the new threshold. He is right. Palestinian citizens will now be denied the freedom of a diverse political spectrum in order to maintain representation in the government. Radical Islamists will have to find common language with secularist and Marxists parties. Inside the Jewish electorate there is a wide and vibrant difference of political opinion that is fantastically reflected in the myriad political parties that exist in the Israeli parliament. For those accustomed to praising the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, the passage of the bill has been a major setback.

In January, the Labor chairman Isaac Herzog called the bill “a danger to pluralism and the lifeblood of democracy”. In response to the passage of the law, the Palestinian legal rights NGO Adalah published an open letter in the Israeli liberal daily Ha’aretz slamming the bill. “This harm to the Arab public is not only a violation of Palestinian collective rights but is also an infringement of the individual rights of Arab citizens who, like Jewish citizens and any citizens of a democratic country, are entitled to the right to a meaningful choice between various alternatives.”

The bill on its own would be enough for serious discussion about the health of Israel’s democracy but it came as part of a package of bills that form the centrepiece of the current Netanyahu government. Aside from the electoral threshold bill, the government passed legislation that essentially forces ultra-orthodox men to serve in the military and a bill that will require a Knesset ­supermajority vote on any peace deal that requires land swaps.

Each bill targets a different sector of society or core issue that performed poorly during last year’s elections: the ultra-orthodox, the Palestinians and the peace process. Curiously, the laws were passed together as part of a package deal between all of Netanyahu’s coalition members and featured legislation that disallowed opposition to the package.

“We haven’t even talked about the content of the bills,” Herzog told reporters after the passage of the package. “The big story for us is the bullying way in which everything is being passed in three days, as though this was an emergency.”

With these new laws, the current government has demonstrated the areas they believe to be the problem in Israeli society. Instead of passing reforms that would solve Israel’s growing income disparity, such as implementing an inheritance tax, politicians have targeted those who have little power in the political spectrum. The irony is that those at the sharp end of this legislation will soon become the majority in Israel due to their disproportionately high fertility rates. Even more ironic is that significant parts of the governing coalition, specifically Lapid’s Yesh Atid, came to power on a ticket of social reform for Israel’s middle class

With the US peace process in free fall and a steady stream of media reports that suggest that Kerry has not been able to negotiate an elusive peace deal, Israel’s parliament used the governability package to quietly pass a bill that would make land swaps with the Palestinians virtually impossible. The measure requires a supermajority vote in the parliament to cede any land held by Israel in a peace deal. In principle, the measure does little more than an existing law that mandates a public vote for any land swap deal.

“The main point of this [new] law is to prevent tearing apart our country by using political manoeuvres,” said Naftali Bennett, whose hardline Jewish Home Party opposes the creation of an independent Palestinian state. “If there is a decision to give up our lands, then it will have to go back to the people to decide.”

Throughout the decades-long conflict with the Palestinians, the Israelis have been nothing but honest about their intentions for peace. While there is much rhetoric about the need for peace and Israel’s willingness to make “painful” concessions, the actions of the government often speak much louder than words. To be sure, the passage of this supermajority bill came at an exceptionally delicate time for the peace process and didn’t go unnoticed in the halls of American power.

The three-bill package represents Israel at its most bullish, determined and aggressive. Instead of going after the tax loopholes and tycoon-like governing structure that has allowed a select few families to enrich themselves beyond belief, the government is attacking the most vulnerable in society. It is a commentary on the authenticity of the Israeli peace negotiations team that one of the weak links happens to be the peace process itself.

Every high-profile member of the Israeli parliament voted for these bills. This underlines how little difference exists inside Israel’s governing coalition. Indeed, some members of the coalition express their contempt for Palestinians more openly than others, but the passage of the bills shows that when push comes to shove, all are united by their unwillingness to see the advancement and inclusion of ultra-orthodox and Palestinians citizens.

The internal dynamics of the Israeli state have seemingly not changed since the founding of the country, when Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, enticed large segments of ultra-orthodox Jewry to Israel with promise of military exemption and handsome state subsidies. Additionally, Israel has enacted a peculiar form of democracy that institutionalises the second-class citizenship of Palestinians, whether in the inability to purchase land (large tracts of land in Israel are owned by the state and officially not for sale to Palestinian non-Jewish citizens) or access to social services.

These legal mechanisms were enacted in the foundation period of the state, when Palestinians were under military, not civilian, governance. If anything, the move to raise the electoral threshold and the certain knowledge that this could effectively bar Palestinian representation in the Israeli parliament is merely another rung in a long-standing state policy of discrimination and disenfranchisement of Palestinian citizens.

While these trends are alarming for observers of Israel, the most important regional takeaway for this set of laws is the insistence by the Israeli government to formulate, on an official level, its disdain for the US-led peace process.

As all of the players in the failing peace process begin to create their getaway plans and set up those responsible for the impasse, the Israeli parliament in effect underlines the fact that even if a deal was reached, laws are in place to empower the most extreme voices in the country.

Israel might be caught between a rock and a hard place or worse, hellbent on maintaining its occupation of Palestinian land, but one thing is painfully clear, it is honest about its intentions. The passage of the governability suite of laws is the most significant legislation in recent years that reaffirms Israel as a secular nationalist state that has no clear intention of implementing a peace process with the Palestinians nor of incorporating Palestinian citizens into the political matrix of the country.

Joseph Dana is a correspondent for Monocle magazine and a regular contributor to The National.