The electoral threshold, a central feature of Israel’s system of government, is helping to shape the fate of many political parties there. Already, the threshold has claimed Tzipi Livni as a political casualty, while spurring other factions to consider mergers. What exactly is the electoral threshold, and why is it so important?

Israel operates a proportional representation system. This means political parties are accorded seats in parliament, the Knesset, based on the percentage of the vote they receive. In theory, a party receiving 10 percent of the vote would win 12 out of the Knesset’s 120 mandates. Because Israel is a relatively small country, members of Knesset do not represent specific geographic regions. Instead, the entire State of Israel is a single at-large district.

There is a minimum bar for entry under such a framework. This is the electoral threshold, the percentage of the national vote a party must earn in order to enter the Knesset at all. The current figure is 3.25 percent, meaning any party earning less than that will be left on the sidelines. Israel has no form of ranked-option voting, meaning ballots cast for a party falling below the threshold are essentially wasted. The number of wasted votes has risen dramatically over the last three decades. Even accounting for population growth, there is a clear correlation between electoral threshold and wasted ballots: in 1984 (when Israel’s population was about half its current size), the threshold was one percent and around 60,000 votes were cast for parties that missed the threshold. In 2013, the threshold was two percent and nearly 270,000 votes were wasted.

The Knesset legislates the electoral threshold. The most recent change, in 2014, raised the threshold from two to 3.25 percent (equal to about four seats in the Knesset). Then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman championed the move, widely interpreted as an attempt to keep small Palestinian-Israeli factions out of the Knesset. Now, with the April 2019 elections fast approaching, Liberman’s move may have been an own goal as most polls show his Yisrael Beiteinu party struggling to stay afloat.

With Liberman now enjoying his just desserts, what about the Arab parties he sought to punish? These parties responded by running in 2015 as an alliance appropriately dubbed the Joint List. The Joint List is actually not the only joint electoral list in Israeli politics: Bayit Yehudi runs in partnership with a smaller extreme-right faction called Tkuma, while the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism brings together two groups, Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael. The former Zionist Union (Labor and Hatnuah) was another example. Running alone, these parties would likely miss the mark to enter the Knesset, but together they can make a significant splash. Recall that the (predominantly Palestinian-Israeli) Joint List was the third-largest faction in the last Knesset after Likud and the Zionist Union.

The prospect of a party missing the threshold is a matter of grave concern not only to that party’s leaders, but also its potential allies in a future government. This is partly why Tzipi Livni made the painful decision to withdraw from the race yesterday. The Hatnuah leader saw her poll numbers consistently below the threshold. If Livni ran and those forecasts proved accurate, several tens of thousands of votes that might otherwise have gone to Netanyahu rivals like Labor, Meretz, Yesh Atid, and Hosen Leyisrael would instead go to no one while increasing the right-wing’s share of the vote.

This means larger parties are also interested in seeing joint lists form in order to ensure that viable partners exist with which to form a government. A major example of this is Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing efforts to get Bayit Yehudi to merge with the radical right Otzma Yehudit faction. Otzma Yehudit is almost certainly too small to gain entry into the Knesset alone. If it runs independently, Netanyahu fears right-wing votes will be effectively discarded.

But joint lists are not always happy marriages. While Tkuma’s Bezalel Smotrich would feel at home with Otzma Yehudit, the less extreme elements of Bayit Yehudi may be less (publicly) comfortable with its Kahanist bent. The Arab Joint List made it into the Knesset with 13 seats but ultimately suffered from precisely this flaw: its members didn’t actually share much in common beyond being Palestinian and harboring varying degrees of antipathy toward Zionism. The list brought together a communist party, a Pan-Arab nationalist party, and conservative Islamists. Behind the scenes, complicated rotation agreements were required in order to preserve the alliance, which ultimately broke down with the exit of Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al party, which is polling about equally with the rump Joint List.

If a joint list can’t save smaller parties, one more option exists: a vote-sharing agreement. Since there is no such thing as half a Knesset seat, parties can agree to “share” surplus votes that would not otherwise equal a full seat, allowing factions to see otherwise wasted votes benefit their ideological allies rather than be redistributed across the entire political spectrum. In the 2015 elections, Labor signed a vote-sharing agreement with the smaller leftist faction Meretz, while the Joint List rejected a similar agreement with Meretz over objections from one of its constituent factions, the Arab nationalist party Balad.

The deadline to submit final lists for the Knesset race is this Thursday. The makeup of those lists and any potential alliances will in large part be determined by smaller parties’ efforts to rise above the electoral threshold and larger lists’ efforts to develop workable coalitions to lead in the next government.