Rivlin Plans to Bar MKs for Serious Ethical Violations

Knesset Speaker-designate Reuven Rivlin (Likud) plans to enact legislation to enable Knesset members to be suspended for serious ethical violations and will set up a high-level public commission to examine ways to improve the Knesset's poor image.

He also intends to introduce a British-style "Question Time" for ministers.

Rivlin has already begun consulting former Knesset speakers and Supreme Court presidents about the public commission, but has not yet decided who should chair it or who its members should be. He has also asked the Knesset's research center to begin researching steps other parliaments have taken to counteract similar image problems.

The Israel Democracy Institute's annual Democracy Index found that only 29 percent of Israelis had faith in the Knesset in 2008, down from 52 percent in 2003. This puts the Knesset far below the president (47 percent), the Supreme Court (49 percent) and the Israel Defense Forces (71 percent), though above the prime minister (17 percent) and the political parties (15 percent).

Rivlin believes that some MKs' poor ethical behavior, along with the Knesset's lack of an effective response, are part of the problem. "A large part of the public views us as a rabble of miscreants," he said. "We must cleanse the camp."

During his last term as speaker, in the 16th Knesset (2003-06), Rivlin therefore appointed a public commission, chaired by former Supreme Court justice Yitzhak Zamir, to draft a new code of ethics for Knesset members. However, the Zamir Commission submitted its conclusions only about two years ago, during the 17th Knesset, and the MKs never ratified its conclusions.

Rivlin said he intends to implement all of Zamir's recommendations - "even if the MKs don't want a code of ethics, and it has to be forced on the Knesset" - with one exception: appointment of an "ethics advisor" for the Knesset. That is the proposal that aroused most opposition from the MKs, and Rivlin deems it unnecessary.

The recommendations he does intend to implement include strict rules to prevent conflicts of interest. "There are politicians who are for sale for the price of a meal in a restaurant," he once told a seminar on Knesset ethics.

Rivlin also intends to amend the Basic Law on the Knesset to enable MKs to be suspended for serious ethical violations. Currently, an MK can be temporarily barred from certain types of parliamentary activity, but this does not deprive him of his pay. Full suspension, which is currently impossible, would include loss of pay while the suspension is in force.

A suspended MK would be replaced temporarily by the next available person on the party's list.

Research conducted by the Knesset's research center in 2005 found that most Western democracies do permit suspensions of legislators who commit serious violations. However, this sanction is very rarely used, and even then the suspension is usually brief. Britain, for instance, has never suspended a member of parliament for more than a month, while France has never suspended a legislator at all.