knesset - Tomer Appelbaum - October 11 2010
The Knesset on the last day before its long summer recess. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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The 18th Knesset reconvenes today after an overly long summer recess. It will have to prove it's still alive and kicking, as a well-run parliamentary system requires. Its agenda includes fundamental matters of principle related to respect for our parliamentary government, which must be strengthened and improved.

A bill providing for a referendum should the government approve a withdrawal from territory under Israeli control by its nature threatens the Knesset's supremacy though the concept of a referendum exists in most democracies and is not viewed as damaging to the foundations of representative democracy.

As proposed by MK Ofir Akunis (Likud ), a referendum would be held if the cabinet approves a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. The bill is far-reaching in that it doesn't require a Knesset decision or the passage of legislation before the plebiscite. As a result, it harms respect for the Knesset and its supremacy by completely bypassing the parliament and excluding it from the issue. Unsurprisingly, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, a tireless advocate on behalf of a Knesset that has lost respect, said in this context that "a referendum does not work miracles and cannot bypass Israeli democracy."

There's another annual assault on the state's legislative branch, the Economic Arrangements bill, whose purpose is to put things in order at the Knesset and pass structural reform measures on a range of topics - without hearings or detailed scrutiny. The High Court of Justice is looking on from the sidelines. In a wide-ranging opinion, it warned against bypassing the Knesset through the arrangements law, but it has not intervened in view of the high authority of the Knesset itself.

It's worth remembering that power is ultimately vested in members of the Knesset, who are entitled to refrain from approving the provisions of proposed legislation, at least to the extent they don't directly advance the aims of the budget from an economic standpoint. It is fair to assume, however, this time, too, the coalition steamroller will prevail over most MKs.

Another test of principle the Knesset faces is posed by a High Court of Justice decision about two weeks ago in which the court refrained from invalidating income tax rules despite inherent discrimination of tax benefits for certain communities. The court warned it would act if changes were not made to the law.

The justices made the limitations on the legislature's power clear when harm is done to constitutional rights, to the right to equality or other rights. By virtue of this principle, the Knesset should debate the bill to amend the citizenship law to require new citizens to declare loyalty to "the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state." The Knesset should develop a formula that also provides that the state will respect the rights of all of its citizens. A cloud of discrimination would be lifted from the bill if it required the oath of every new citizen, Jewish or otherwise.

It's fair to assume this Knesset will not assert its role as a constitutional body by passing Basic Laws. The chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, David Rotem, (Yisrael Beiteinu ) has not excluded the prospect that bills designed to buttress social rights in the Basic Laws would be proposed, but passage is far off. Such legislation should not provoke ideological and political disagreement and should make it clear to the government that the right to minimum subsistence and to education and health care cannot be abridged without compelling budgetary reasons.

If the Knesset acts to preserve its role in the central political decision making process and in strengthening the rights of the individual, while preventing the government from taking control of the substance of legislation through "arrangements," it will prove it still exists in practice.