A cabinet meeting in July 2012.
A cabinet meeting in July 2012 Photo by Emil Salman
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MK Yariv Levin (Likud ) recently co-sponsored a seemingly uncontroversial bill requiring the National Insurance Institute to notify recently demobilized soldiers that they are required to pay NII fees as soon as they leave the army. The bill's purpose is to keep them from having to pay thousands of shekels in accumulated payments years later. And so Levin brought his proposal to the first stop in the process that turns bills into laws: the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

The public may think Israeli law is decided on the floor of the Knesset, but to a large extent the fate of Knesset bills is actually determined by the 17 ministers who belong to the committee - and sometimes just by the handful who show up that day. In at least one vote, just one member - Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, who heads the committee - was recorded as being present.

The ministers meet once a week to decide whether to require the members of the coalition to vote in favor of, or against, every bill that reaches the Knesset floor, thereby ensuring that any given bill either has majority support and will get passed into law, or that it doesn't, and will get buried.

Sometimes the decision is reached before the committee even meets. Sources familiar with how the panel operates say that on occasion, members are ordered by their party chairmen to vote a certain way to conform with backroom political deals.

"The ministerial committee is the brakes," said Levin. "Anything that doesn't get passed there dies."

In the case of his NII bill, the committee members decided the coalition would not support it without bothering to explain why. Levin is now at the forefront of a campaign to bring transparency to the committee's decision-making process, a change he said would make it easier for MKs to argue for their positions and make any necessary revisions.

For now, the positions the committee members take are not leaked outside the meeting room, and the panel does not formally poll its members to see who supports or opposes a given bill. Sometimes only six ministers show up at a meeting, sometimes fewer.

And that's a problem, said Levin.

"If I don't know why the law was defeated and who opposes it, I won't be able to try to convince [the ministers] that the law is justified, and I won't be able to insert changes," he said. "I shouldn't have to act like a detective to find out what happened in committee."

Instead, Levin wants the votes to be made public, as they are on the floor of the Knesset.

"The question of who voted for or against must be open," he said. "They need to give explanations at least for opposition votes. To come and say that the committee opposed it is okay, but you have to give the committee's comprehensive reason for rejecting it."

Levin is not the only Knesset member lobbying for change.

Several months ago, MK Orly Levi-Abekasis (Yisrael Beiteinu ) sponsored a bill calling on the Ministerial Committee for Legislation to divulge the reasons for its decisions. The committee voted to have the coalition oppose the bill, as it did with several other legislative proposals calling for increased transparency. Naturally, it did not offer a reason for its decision.

"It's a catastrophe," said Levi-Abekasis. "After the committee rejected a bill I put forth that was supposed to protect children, it became clear to me that a minister who's supposed to protect the interests of this population had come out against the bill. That's legitimate, of course, but he has to know that he has to explain his vote, not hide it. If there were a transcript, he would think twice before voting."

But where some MKs see the ministerial committee as lacking sufficient accountability, sources familiar with the committee's workings say that releasing official transcripts of their sessions would open up committee members to appeals from special interest groups, and subject them to pressure to give coalition support to bills put forth by political allies, or for popular, but not necessarily good, legislation.

In addition, deliberating the 30 or 40 new bills proposed every week takes a great deal of time from government officials who do, after all, have ministries to run.

Some transcripts, however, were recently released to the Movement for Freedom of Information in Israel, the Public Knowledge Workshop and the Social Guard, three advocacy groups are working to increase the committee's transparency. They received the documents after petitioning the Prime Minister's Office, but found no record of how individual members voted.

The groups uncovered only some basic explanations for decisions the committee reached on certain bills.

The records also show that even for some of the most high-profile bills, just six to eight ministers showed up for the committee meeting. Only Neeman (along with non-voting officials from the finance and housing ministries ) was present at an important vote on housing, even though it took place just a few minutes after a vote on an issue that drew about half a dozen members.

Alona Winograd, the executive director of the Movement for Freedom of Information in Israel, said it is unreasonable for the public to be left in the dark on how "public servants" on the legislation committee vote.

"It is not reasonable that the public cannot know which of the ministers supported a given proposal and which opposed it," she said.

Pro-settlement legislation squeezes through

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation in recent months has made several controversial decisions on issues relating to the settlements.

In May the committee initially voted to support a bill extending Israeli law to West Bank settlements, but changed its vote after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened.

The committee also voted to oppose a law aimed at retroactively legitimizing illegal construction on the Migron outpost and Ulpana neighborhood. Coalition members were to be allowed to vote their conscience, meaning individual MKs could vote for the law even though the coalition officially opposed it, but Netanyahu again intervened and it didn't pass.

The legislation committee also voted to give tax breaks to people donating money "to encourage settlement," a law that has since passed. Its sponsors claimed it was meant to help the Negev and Galilee, but the law does not distinguish between the two sides of the Green Line.

This week the Knesset passed a law which had earlier won committee support, and which gives police and the Shin Bet security service three more years before having to videotape their interrogations of terror suspects or those accused of security offenses. (Jonathan Lis )