As John Kerry struggles to piece together some semblance of progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, Jerusalem is getting busy with some long awaited domestic reforms. Among them are a “governability bill,” raising the Knesset’s electoral threshold from 2 to 3.25 percent, and a bill to begin integrating the country’s ultra-orthodox into military service, from which they’ve long been exempted. The first is seen as a blow to Israel’s Arab minority, about one fifth of the population. The second is one of the biggest possible blows to the ultra-orthodox, which make up about ten percent of Israel’s population.How much the governability bill affects the political power of Israel’s Arabs depends in large part on how they react to it. Together the Knesset’s three Arab parties (Ra’am-Ta’al, the National Democratic Assembly, and Hadash) won eleven Knesset seats in 2013, but only one broke the new threshold of 3.25 percent. Proponents of the bill argue that Israeli Arabs now have an opportunity to enhance their influence by uniting into one party. But the parties are bitterly divided and have long had trouble getting their constituents, though a large portion of the population, to vote in substantial numbers. Opponents of the bill argue that it forces uniformity and compromise on Arabs where Jews get to enjoy vast diversity.The best historical example of political mayhem wrought by low parliamentary thresholds is the Weimar Republic, which didn’t have one at all. Israel’s was dangerously close to that at only 0.8 percent in 1951, but it has gradually raised it ever since. Germany and New Zealand each have a 5 percent threshold for their legislatures, so 3.25 percent isn’t unprecedented. But the Knesset represents a vastly more diverse society than the Bundestag. Whether the taming of chaotic politics is worth the relative exclusion of political minorities—and whether those minorities can unite to enhance their power—remains to be seen.Among the opponents of the bill were Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jewish parties, Shas, and United Torah Jerusalem. Though just ten percent of the population, their constituents turn out in large numbers to vote, pushing them both well past the new threshold and giving them a combined 18 seats in last year’s elections. But left out of the new coalition, they’ve now lost their constituents’ coveted blanket exemption from military conscription. There has long been resentment among Israel’s secular and less religious Jews that the ultra-orthodox aren’t required to fight for the country whose protection they enjoy (and whose welfare payments they live off of). The new law requires modest increases in service requirements for all young ultra-orthodox men, who traditionally claim the right to full-time Torah study. The Haredi opponents of the bill call it the end of the Jewish state. Its secular critics say it doesn’t go far enough to equalize the burden of defense.These are big changes for the tiny country of eight million people that commands so much of the world’s attention. It’s often only foreign policy that puts Israel on the American news cycle, but understanding this dizzyingly complex country is important for America. Besides being a perennial area of political interest for Presidents and Secretaries of State, a significant portion of the American electorate believes that the modern Jewish state is evidence of God’s hand at work in history. What happens there means a lot to many people in the United States and around the world. Trying to understand it beyond the various boycotts and peace negotiations that dominate the headlines is important.
Jews is NewsAs Peace Talks Founder, Reforms Sweep Israel