All in Favor / The Choice to Keep Mum

To Meretz faction leader Zahava Gal-On's credit, she knows when to admit a mistake. Gal-On and former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) supported two bills, which would see Knesset members who claim their right to keep silent during an investigation removed from their posts.

"This sanction might have gone too far," Gal-On conceded toward the end of the meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday.

"There is something to be said for this being punishment before conviction," she said. "I might take a step back."

In the current practice, even if an MK is convicted of rape, he cannot be dismissed from the Knesset before a final verdict is rendered (after appeal). At most, he can be suspended.

Committee chairman Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima) met with Gal-On and with Rivlin to formulate a softer version of their proposals.

According to Gal-On, a minister or MK who claimed the right to keep silent would cease serving in those positions the moment the investigator or judge involved said so.

That means that if the individual in question is the prime minister, an investigator would be able to disband the government. Rivlin's proposal is more tempered, requiring the approval of the House Committee and the plenary to dismiss an MK.

Rivlin said that the dim view the public takes of the Knesset requires extreme steps. "They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions," he said. "The Knesset is already in hell."

According to Rivlin, his proposal is justified, because it leaves the decision to keep silent or not in the hands of the MK. Rivlin said that when he was investigated for bribery (the case was closed), it did not occur to him to claim his right to keep silent.

The Knesset Research and Information Center found that in 18 democratic countries examined, not one had a special law limiting ministers and parliamentarians' right to keep silent.

However, Israeli lawmakers have for some time been on a campaign of self-flagellation, in which they have limited the rights, immunity and legal protection afforded them, in a desperate attempt to improve their public image.

On Monday they came under a barrage of criticism by academics. "The question is whether for every inappropriate act we will eject [an MK] from the Knesset," said Prof. Suzie Navot of the College of Management, an expert in constitutional law.

Navot warned that the Knesset acts very quickly when it comes to limiting the rights of its members. Prof. Ariel Ben-Dor of the University of Haifa, also an expert in constitutional law, said "to expel an MK is a very extreme act. This is a person who was elected by the people."

MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) joined the criticism. "From a situation where MKs had too much immunity, we have reached the opposite situation," he said. "A member of Knesset is less protected than a simple citizen. That is an absurd situation."