Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Israel’s Political Drama and the System Behind It

Israel’s Political Drama and the System Behind It

Israeli Knesset

Over the past few weeks, Israel has been facing quite a bit of political drama—complete with screaming matches and the physical removal of parliamentarians from the Knesset plenum.[1] This has been all in response to a ban placed on three MKs (Members of Knesset) from the Joint Arab List after they attended a controversial meeting in early February with families of Palestinians who died carrying out attacks on Israelis last year.

This incident is sparking heated political debates within Israeli society and abroad, but it also poses some interesting questions about the Israeli system of government and its structure.

What Happened?

On February 8th, three MKs from the Joint Arab List Party—Hanin Zoabi, Basel Ghattas, and Jamal Zahalka—were banned from regular Knesset activity because of their visit the week before with families of Palestinians attackers who killed Israelis last year.

The purpose of the visit was to put pressure on the Israeli government to return the bodies of these Palestinian attackers to their families. The Israeli government often holds on to these bodies until families agree to hold small, quiet burial ceremonies for the stated reason that large funerals could incite further violence. The MKs also stood in a moment of silence for the Palestinian attackers, which, in the weeks since, has been condemned by other MKs across the political spectrum. The ban, issued by the Knesset Ethics Committee, restricts the three MKs from participating in Knesset committee meetings and in the plenum (Zoabi and Ghattas for four months, Zahalka for two). They can, however, continue to vote throughout the duration of the ban.

Subsequently, Netanyahu introduced a bill to the Knesset that would further penalize MKs for similar acts in the future. The bill, which is currently being discussed in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, would allow an MK to be suspended (with no specific time limit on the duration) if two thirds of Knesset members vote in favor of the suspension.

Voter Mandate

First, this situation calls attention to the nature of a voter mandate in a constantly changing political landscape. Generally, democracies operate according to the theory that candidates make their views known to the public during the election season and, through voting, the electorate expresses support for the elected leaders’ future actions. Yet, because of recent changes in Israeli electoral law, the direct link between voters and MKs in this case is harder to determine.

The three MKs who attended the meeting were members of the Balad Party before the most recent elections, which took place in March 2015. However, a year prior to the elections in March of 2014, the Knesset voted to raise Israel’s electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25% meaning that a party would need to acquire a minimum of 3.25% of the total vote in order to qualify for having any representation in the parliament.

Raising the electoral threshold can be used as a political tool to reduce the ability of small parties to meaningfully enter politics. In this case, the initiative was championed by Israeli leaders of the right and center, particularly Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Former Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), in order to crowd out the small Arab and leftist parties with whom they did not align.

In January of 2015, the Arab parties—Balad, Ta’al, and the United Arab List (the southern branch of the Islamic Movement)—as well as the Jewish and Arab-leftist Hadash party, combined to form the new Joint Arab List. These “unlikely bedfellows,” as many commentators called them, were each at risk of falling below the new threshold on their own, but together were able to secure 13 seats in the Knesset, making the Joint Arab List the third largest party in the Israeli parliament.

Moshe Arens, Former Minister and Israeli ambassador to the U.S., points out in a recent Haaretz op-ed that it is hard to discern what percentage of the Joint Arab List electorate would condone the actions of Zoabi, Ghattas, and Zahalka. The Joint List was an alliance of strategy, not of ideology, and the group spans a wide range of ideological positions. Furthermore, the Joint Arab List was the only option on the ballot specifically representing Israeli Arabs. So any voter who wanted to vote Israeli-Arab representatives into the Knesset did not have other options. That all means that it’s impossible to know for sure how much of the electorate that voted for the Joint Arab List would agree with the actions of the Balad MKs. This incident highlights how the haphazard party that came together because of the rise in the electoral threshold dilutes the sense of a clear voter mandate for the actions of government officials.

Narrowing the Field

The new suspension bill proposed by Netanyahu would require a simple majority of 61 MKs to initiate suspending another MK, but would ultimately require 90 MKs (a 2/3 majority) to put the suspension into action. Most analysts are saying that, even if the bill were to pass, Netanyahu’s coalition would have a difficult time using it to successfully oust a member of the Joint Arab List.[2]

This calls attention to another interesting outcome of the creation of the Joint Arab List, which is: not only is the Arab-Israeli bloc getting larger, but also the larger it gets, the more it politically constrains a coalition unwilling to engage with it. If the coalition will not recruit the support of the Arab-Israeli MKs, they are left with a diminishing pool of alternatives.

No Arab-Israeli party has ever been part of a governing coalition in Israel, leaving these parties on the outskirts of Israeli politics. But, for the coalition to reach a 2/3 majority excluding members of the Joint Arab List in order to pass this bill, they would need to recruit a huge chunk of the remaining Jewish MKs, many of whom have strong ideological disagreements with Netanyahu’s government.

The number of seats held by Arab Israelis in the Knesset has increased by about 19% between 1992 and 2015.[3] Furthermore, the voter turnout among Israeli Arabs in the 2015 election was unprecedented—63.5% voter turnout as compared to 53% and 56% in the 2009 and 2013 elections respectively (an increase of over 27% since 2013).[4] The trend is upward and means that the political game of how the Israeli government operates is likely to change.

While political commentators are still operating in a world of hypotheticals when discussing the likelihood of Netanyahu’s proposed bill being implemented, the discussion brings to light an important point: Arab-Israeli representation in the Knesset is growing in numbers and strength and the old paradigm of maneuvering around the Arab-Israeli vote when a law needs to be passed is going to be less and less feasible in Israel’s coalition government. Either the Arab-Israeli bloc will need to be brought into the process or there will need to be broad consensus among the parties made up of Jewish MKs.

Setting Precedent

Many MKs who have spoken out strongly against the actions of Zoabi, Ghattas, and Zahalka are also speaking out strongly against Netanyahu’s proposed bill for suspending fellow MKs.

That is because Israel’s electoral system, with its proportional representation system, coalition government, and relatively low electoral threshold,[5] provides an environment where smaller, niche parties (which often means more extreme and single-minded parties) can thrive. If this law were to pass, it would create viable grounds for removing those MKs deemed by their colleagues to have acted “inappropriately.”

This, critics of the bill say, could set a dangerous precedent. Currently, an MK can only be removed from the position for committing a criminal offense, upon conviction of which, the MK’s term is automatically terminated. However, the proposed law would allow the judgment about whether or not an MK’s behavior warrants suspension or termination to extend beyond the legal sphere into the political one, where a suspension could be used for political gain.

MK Bezalel Smotrich, from the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, articulated this fear when he said in an interview with Razi Barkai of the Army Radio Channel: “This law as a law is bad. Tomorrow morning someone could decide that Michal Rozen [Meretz] is too extreme and that there’s no place for her in the Knesset and later someone can decide that I am too extreme and I don’t have a place in the Knesset.”[6]

MKs from other parties, including the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid,[7] have also denounced the proposed law, and President Rivlin expressed his opposition to the bill on account that it is a blow to Israel’s democracy.

What this bill would mean in terms of democracy is the blurring of separated powers. Allowing elected parliamentarians to serve as judge and jury for the behavior of other MKs ultimately diminishes the power of the electorate and the message they send by casting votes. In Israel’s fragmented political landscape, the bill that has arisen in response to the actions of the three Joint Arab List MKs, could be used to suspend parliamentarians across the political spectrum, should it pass.

Party Identities

Some politicians and analysts are saying it is not the individual MKs who should be suspended, but rather that the Balad party should be outlawed. This isn’t completely unprecedented; in fact, Israel outlawed the northern branch of the Islamic Movement just this past November because of its close ties with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet, another implication of the formation of the Joint Arab List, and the Israeli parliamentary system at large,[8] is that the Balad party still exists in the Israeli psyche, but does not actually exist in the 20th Knesset. Could the Israeli government ban a party that doesn’t really exist anymore? And, if it tried, would the Joint Arab List protect the former Balad MKs? Furthermore, this incident raises questions about whether there will be a rift from within the Joint Arab List and, ultimately, if the union of these “unlikely bedfellows” will survive beyond one election cycle. The debate over banning the Balad party shows the fluid nature of party identity in Israeli politics, especially when looking at the Arab-Israeli bloc.

So What?

It is not very likely that Netanyahu’s bill will pass. Even if it were to pass, the fact that it requires two-thirds of the Knesset to enact means it would probably be implemented very rarely, if ever.

In all likelihood, MKs will continue to be reprimanded through the systems that already exist. The Knesset Ethics Committee will use the tools at its disposal to administer punishment internally, such as banning MKs from participating in committee and plenum discussions (as was done in this case).

The real ramifications of this incident will probably play out in the political sphere. Going forward, and especially in the next election season, it is feasible that both the coalition and the Joint Arab List MKs in question will accuse the other of threatening Israel’s democracy:  the coalition by claiming the three MKs were acting against the will of the Israeli electorate and the three MKs by claiming that the coalition was ready to take the role of the judiciary into their own hands.

Especially with a case as politically and emotionally charged as this one, the term “democracy” can be thrown around a lot – both by way of defense and accusation. Yet, that’s no reason to ignore that political actions today can, in the long term, have a profound effect on what “democracy” means, and which of the various values encapsulated in the concept are the most important.

[1] The Knesset is the Israeli Parliament.

[2] For a future offense. The bill, if passed, would only apply to cases moving forward, not retroactively to the situation of Zoabi, Ghattas, and Zahalka visiting the Palestinian families.

[3] “IDI Resources on the 2015 Elections,” The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), 2015 <>.

[4] Ariel Ben Solomon, “Arab Sector Turnout for Recent Elections Reached 63.5%, Polling Data Shows,” The Jerusalem Post, March 24, 2015 <>.

[5] Although Israel’s electoral threshold was raised from 2%-3.25% in March of 2014, it is still low relative to most European countries, whose thresholds tend to fall in the 5%-10% range; see Neri Zilber, “Israel’s Governance Law: Raising the Electoral Threshold,” The Washington Institute, March 10, 2014 <>.

[6] Translation by author.

[7] Considered left and center, respectively.

[8] For more on Israel’s electoral system, including how it favors small parties and encourages splinter parties, see the author’s interactive infographic on electoral systems. This provides a general overview of the way different electoral systems operate. The Infographic also includes an Israel case study with more details about Israel’s system in particular.