As the winter Knesset session comes to a close, it will be remembered for tarnishing the Knesset’s public standing even further. During this session, Knesset members became nothing more than a rubber stamp of approval for the coalition’s agenda; ministers failed to show up for debates on controversial issues; the prime minister was the deciding factor on difficult obstacles in bills; and visiting foreign leaders were subjected to interruptions and the richochets from inter-party politics.
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The Knesset has seen better days. It once served as the central stage for fierce political debates, great Israelis often chose to make speeches there, and world leaders, most notably former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and many American presidents, saw it as an important stop during their official visits.
How has the Knesset sunk so low? As the years have gone by, the Knesset plenum has fallen by the wayside as more and more significant decisions are made by the cabinet.
“In a way, when it comes to essential issues, the executive branch has become the legislative branch as well,” said one veteran MK. “In contrast to what they teach in civics classes, MKs don’t vote on each issue according to their beliefs, but rather they toe the coalition’s line. MKs approve what the coalition wants, and reject what doesn’t fit in. What goes on in the plenum has almost become insignificant.”
MK: ‘Debate only for sake of debate’
According to MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), “The cabinet has become much stronger at the Knesset’s expense. The public views the Knesset as one-dimensional and uninteresting – they have debates there just for the sake of debate, none of which are supposed to convince anyone of anything. It’s very troubling.”
Coalition chairman MK Yariv Levin (Likud) agrees that the Knesset plenum has become rather unimportant in the legislative process. “If the coalition works right, that’s what happens: The coalition needs to turn to the plenum with a consensus. Otherwise, there’s anarchy. The system becomes completely based on luck. Approving laws in that kind of situation is liable to include never-ending wheeling and dealing, and in that case, the government’s ability to function is just nonexistent.”
Thus, last week, many coalition members found themselves at the podium trying to explain why they voted in favor of laws they oppose. MK Amram Mitzna (Hatnuah), who voted in favor of the governance law that raised the electoral threshold, told the plenum, “The name of the governance law is flawed, it does not bring about an improvement of governance. This law only harms the Knesset’s status and public image. It is meant to limit the presence of Arab parties in the Knesset, and that is a terrible mistake. This is inappropriate, and wrong.”
Mitzna’s party colleague MK Meir Sheetrit stated, “I am totally opposed to the law on a national referendum, but if that’s the only thing that will advance us towards peace then I will support it wholeheartedly.” MK Shuli Moalem (Habayit Hayehudi) slammed the governance law, saying, “This law pains me in my gut. My vote in favor of this law stems only from my obligations to the coalition.” MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi) declared that “increasing the vote threshold isn’t a good idea in my opinion, but so what? I’m in the coalition. Just like I want others to compromise on issues that are important to me, so do I comprise for others, even when its wrong, not good, or unhealthy.” And these weren’t the only excuses heard.
Netanyahu’s third government has enjoyed a great deal of power, and an exceptional ability to govern. Just last week the government managed to pass three significant laws, even though not a one of them had majority Knesset support.
“I ask myself – what’s the difference between this Knesset and the last?” said opposition MK Eitan Cabel (Labor). “Every coalition has the ability to force decisions on the opposition. [But] the current government is disrespecting the Knesset. Usually, there is tension, healthy tension, between the government and the Knesset. But this year, there is real disrespect. I’m not sure if they’re disrespecting just us, or coalition members, too.”
Many MKs agree that most of the work these days is done in Knesset committees, rather than in the plenum. “The only arena in which MKs can make any real change is in the committees. There, bills are discussed in depth, and there is room for influence,” says Khenin. According to Levin, “Every bill goes through ... discussions among coalition members meant to reach agreement, which take place in committee, and which go into detail, and which take opposition stances into account.”
PM ‘strikes from above’
But even in committee, MKs have realized in recent months that they sit and wait for decisions that come from somewhere else: Such as from Prime Minister Benjamin Netnayahu “striking from above” by inserting clauses into the governance and draft laws. “It was clear to us that the question regarding criminal sanctions [as part of the draft reform] would not be settled by MKs, but rather by Netanyahu,” said a senior MK from Habayit Hayehudi. “Netanyahu had to decide if we should follow Lapid’s hardline position, or give up Yesh Atid as a coalition member, and it was he who made the final decision.”
The prime minister made a similar decision with regards to the vote threshold. He didn’t participate in committee meetings, but he made the final decision to set the vote threshold at 3.25 percent.
But it’s not just that legislative decisions are made from behind the scenes that is clouding the Knesset’s image; opposition members claim they are regularly denied the ability to approach cabinet ministers with “urgent inquiries” on pressing issues. “Urgent inquiries” would require the ministers to respond at the Knesset podium within one week. Many such inquiries are accepted, but others are often pushed aside. MK Stav Shaffir (Labor) gathered up the inquiries that were rejected over the last few months. During a week in which the Finance Ministry stated that 36 million shekels (just over $10 million) would be earmarked for settlements “as reparations for construction freezes,” Shaffr requested that the finance minister state exactly what the money would be used for, and if there was a plan to alter the budget. She also filed an inquiry with the education minister, asking if he planned to disqualify an article used for matriculation exams in Bible, which included a claim that children of single mothers will require psychological treatment in the future.
“This government is very afraid of the opposition. It’s afraid of public criticism, and difficult questions,” says Shaffir. “That’s the only reason that it uses such bewildering excuses to evade our questions, which it is required by law to answer.”