A New Low in the Knesset

The boycotting of Knesset sessions by the opposition in recent weeks will no doubt be recalled as one of the low points in Israel's parliamentary history. With this extreme and harsh step, the people's elected representatives snubbed the people's house, thus betraying the voters who sent them only a few months ago to faithfully represent them from the opposition benches.

Nothing like this has ever happened in Israel. Never, not even in the stormiest, most polarized times, or during the most bitter disputes, did a minority arise and wield the weapon of the boycott - one that even on Judgment Day, when all is lost, should not be used.

Granted, "care must always be taken so that the minority, too, will feel as if the common house is their house as well, not the fortress of its enemies and those who hate them," as Ze'ev Jabotinsky wrote in his article "On Majorization." Granted, the majority must not be allowed to trample the rights of the minority. Granted, the Knesset is not the government's rubber stamp and must not keep silent when the government presents bills that are publicly unacceptable or incompatible with political morality.

But even if the Knesset has become "the fortress of enemies," the beating heart of democracy must under no circumstances be brought to a halt. The dialogue that takes place between majority and minority in parliament is its life's breath.

When the minority's emissaries wield this prohibited weapon, as if they were in a party central committee meeting or a town square, they bring the Knesset's dignity to a new low. When the focus of the debate is left in the majority's hands, the public feels even more than usual that the Knesset is irrelevant and not fulfilling its essential purpose as a venue for debate. When the Israeli people see discussions on a two-year budget, which will decide fateful socioeconomic issues at a time of deep economic crisis, being held in the Knesset's empty plenum, with no real argument or negotiation that gets to the root of the matter, the rules of the game are dealt a severe blow, not to say a fatal one.

If the Knesset ceases, through its own fault, to serve as a venue for debate, how can it face the public when the time comes and ask for its trust? If the legislative branch betrays its purpose, how can it insist on independence from the judicial branch and stand up for itself if and when the latter infringes on its space? Worst of all, if the sword of the boycott is brandished over even the most minor issues, how will the Knesset act when it must decide truly existential questions?

At the Knesset's nadir - when the government presents bills that are unacceptable from a public and moral standpoint (such as the "Mofaz bill," which states that seven MKs are enough to split off and form their own faction) and the minority so lightly abandons its benches and leaves the Knesset humiliated - the Knesset speaker cannot stand idly by. When the moment of truth comes, he may not wash his hands of the affair and play into the majority's hands by claiming that as a politician and member of the majority he must protect the majority's ability to govern, no matter what. Absolutely not.

Instead, he must mediate and act. He must urgently restore the pendulum of debate, no matter how harsh it is, to its proper, continual rhythm. He must act in this way for the sake of the people's faith in the Knesset, for the strength of democracy in Israel, even if his actions play into the hands of those who will act in bad faith and seek to reap political or personal capital from them.

True democracy does not end once the votes are counted. It is measured and put to the test mainly after the election has been decided.

The writer is Knesset speaker.