The three-month parliamentary recess that ends today has made the public all but oblivious of the Knesset's existence. Blithely ignoring the political process, the security situation and the polarization in relations between Jews and Arabs as well as Orthodox and secular Jews in Jerusalem and elsewhere, our legislators have, as they do every summer, been in a deep slumber. But now "after the holidays" is here, and the lawmakers must wake up and report for today's opening of the winter session.
Speaker Reuven Rivlin complained in a radio interview on Saturday that the Knesset does not serve as the major arena for discussing political and social issues, attributing this to extra-parliamentary gabfests like the annual Herzliya Conference. This sorry state of affairs, which is partly the result of protracted recesses and extremist tendencies in the Knesset that make rational debate impossible, should give MKs cause for concern.
It is incumbent on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is required by law to deliver a political statement at the opening session, to respect and honor the Knesset and not focus on material that has already appeared in the media. His speech will presumably evoke a barrage of heckling, as is only to be expected in a parliamentary democracy, but the honorable members should remember that there are limits to the freedom of political expression. This freedom does not justify inflammatory language or incitement to violence.
The Knesset is convening at a time when its public standing has been gravely devalued, as shown by a Maagar Mohot survey carried out for the Citizens' Empowerment Center. Asked to grade public figures according to the respect they deserve, the respondents put Knesset members beneath university faculty members, judges and senior army officers. The poll shows that the people expect MKs to maintain the principles of probity and ethics, be attentive to the public, behave with mutual respect and devote themselves more to legislative work.
The chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee in the last Knesset, Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson, observed that because MKs have to serve on many committees, they don't have time for the legislature's important task of overseeing the executive branch. This situation is exacerbated by a situation in which a full third of the 120 MKs cannot provide proper oversight because they are cabinet ministers or deputy ministers and therefore members of the executive branch.
The proposal that deputy ministers serve as voting members in Knesset committees contradicts the fundamental principle of the separation of powers, and hopefully will not be put forward again. However, the committees need to be reorganized, and we must adopt the "Norwegian law" that will allow many ministers - and not only one per party - to resign from the Knesset and become a member again if they leave the cabinet. Their seats will be held by the next person on the party's list of Knesset candidates.
Due to come up for second and third readings in the winter session is the biometric database bill, which is problematic because it constitutes a grave infringement of the constitutional right to privacy. Other subjects such as the civil union bill will also stir things up, as will the proposal to split the attorney general's powers between a legal adviser to the government and a public prosecutor. It's doubtful the latter proposal is ripe for legislation that will not severely impinge on the attorney general's standing and the binding nature of his opinions.
The hard work the previous Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee put into developing a constitution must not be allowed to go to waste. Broad agreement is still necessary on issues such as relations between the branches of government, minority rights, the scope of the right to equality and the scope of the Supreme Court's powers of judicial review over Knesset legislation.
But broad agreement has been achieved on other matters such as economic and social rights - enough to serve as a basis for a new basic law. While chances are slim for the adoption of a comprehensive constitution with wide agreement, this Knesset could chalk up a major achievement by adopting a Basic Law on Social Rights that would join the 11 existing basic laws. The chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, David Rotem, must follow in the footsteps of his predecessors, Michael Eitan and Menahem Ben-Sasson, and advance a constitution that would make Israel a true parliamentary and constitutional democracy.
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