Burg Would Have Been Left Out

Under a bill that passed with a vote of 34-22 in the Knesset last week, Avraham Burg could be removed from office if he were still serving today.

It is proposed that the Knesset plenum with a majority of 80 Knesset members... be permitted to remove a serving Knesset member from office if it finds that his remarks or actions contained one of the following: a rejection of the State of Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state..." [from the Basic Law: The Knesset (amendment on removing a Knesset member from office) submitted by MK Esterina Tartman (Yisrael Beiteinu). The bill passed its preliminary reading last Wednesday by a 34-22 majority. Among its signatories are former coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki (Kadima) and Labor faction chairman Yoram Marciano].

You no longer believe in the state as a Jewish state?

"Not in the current definition... to define Israel as a Jewish state and add to it the words, the harbinger of our redemption, is explosive. And then to add on the attempt to include democracy, that's impossible."

This means that you no longer find the notion of a Jewish state acceptable?

"It can't work anymore. To define the State of Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end. A Jewish state is explosive. It's dynamite."

And a Jewish-democratic state?

"People find this very comfortable. It's lovely. It's schmaltzy. It's nostalgic. It's retro. It gives a sense of fullness. But 'Jewish-democratic' is nitroglycerine."

(From an interview given by former MK and former Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg to Ari Shavit, Haaretz, 8.6.07).

On October 30, 2006, the Knesset House Committee discussed Tartman's request to exempt her proposed bill from the normal procedure. MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) used the opportunity to remind participants in the discussion that in January 1933, the Communist members were removed from the German Reichstag due to the claim that they were involved in the burning of the Reichstag building. "In the absence of Communist parliament members... the worst dictatorship of the 20th century was created," said Khenin, who added: "If we pass such a bill, we will be enabling unlimited manipulation of the composition of the Knesset."

Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik was present at the discussion, and asked for the right to speak: "I have been in the Knesset for 14 years," she said.

"And I don't remember such a bill. It is very, very, very, very, very clearly extreme. I tell you that this bill - not because I know, but because I can guess - is clearly illegal, and I also think it will not pass the legal barrier."

Itzik asked Tartman to retract her request. Tartman acceded, but the bill was revived last week.

The chairman of the committee to prepare a new ethics code for the Knesset, MK Ruhama Avraham (Kadima), insisted at the panel's first and festive meeting on making do with general speeches and not getting into details. It is a lot easier to be united when speaking in general terms. The disagreement lies in the details, and Avraham did not want to spoil the festivities with a disagreement. Still, there were some exceptions, such as MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism. In every society, there is someone who is permitted to do what everyone else is forbidden to do. In the Knesset, that's Gafni's role.

Avraham's committee is to discuss the report by the Zamir Committee (headed by retired Supreme Court justice Yitzhak Zamir) on preparing a code of ethics for MKs, and decide which rules it accepts and rejects. Gafni criticized, in particular, the restrictions the committee suggested imposing on the association between Knesset members and government officials. In the draft copy of the report, the committee recommended forbidding Knesset members from making requests to government officials, but rather relaying all requests in writing to each ministry's director general.

The committee further stipulated that Knesset members should not intervene in any of the following areas: criminal proceedings, tenders, license and permit requests, distribution of aid, and appointments.

This recommendation strips a large share of the work of ultra-Orthodox MKs, who see themselves first and foremost as problem-solvers for their constituencies. Gafni, for example, asked at the meeting how exactly he would resolve the problem of an ill person requiring an operation in the next day or two by submitting a written request. Gafni and other MKs appeared before the committee and convinced it to revise the directives so that MKs can send letters directly to officials with a copy to the director general.

Gafni was not the only one who opposed the ban on making verbal requests. The chairman of the Knesset's Ethics Committee, MK Haim Oron (Meretz), said: "I'm unequivocally opposed to this, and I also said that to the Zamir Committee." Oron thinks it's not a problem of the ultra-Orthodox. According to him, the significance of the recommendation is that "MKs will not be able to do 90 percent of the things that they do."

In the Knesset, arguments are expected over two other significant sections of the Zamir report. The problem is that if these sections are not passed, it is unclear what part of the report will actually remain.

One issue will be tightening the obligation to be present at the Knesset. Today, an MK is permitted to be absent for two straight months and up to one-third of all days when the Knesset is in session. The Ethics Committee discusses the possibility of a salary deduction only if he exceeds this generous absence allowance.

The Zamir Committee recommended reducing the allowance in half: one month instead of two, and up to one-sixth of all days when the Knesset is in session, instead of one-third. "It is an accepted principle in every sector and in every place that work absence without reasonable explanation may negate the right to receive one's salary for the duration of such absence," the committee explained.

The second chapter discusses a stiffening of punishments: The former chairman of the Knesset's Ethics Committee, MK Yisrael Eldad (National Union), appeared before the Zamir Committee, and complained that often the committee he once chaired is helpless, because it does not have the tools and authority to punish and deter. Today, the committee can impose a monetary fine only due to work absence. The Zamir Committee recommended allowing the imposition of a fine of up to one month's salary (NIS 32,000 gross) for every ethical violation. Other new sanctions that were proposed included ordering an MK to apologize, imposing a conditional punishment, recommending not to appoint the MK to a senior Knesset position (e.g. speaker, deputy speaker, committee chairman) during that term, or recommending his removal him from such a post. These are not particularly harsh punishments, but even in this format, they are sparking Knesset opposition.

Five months passed from the time the Zamir Committee submitted its report until the special committee chaired by Avraham was established. Knesset members are blaming the delay on the considerable influence Knesset legal adviser Nurit Elstein has over Avraham and Itzik. Avraham apologized during last week's meeting, and explained that the delay was due to personal reasons (the illness of her father, who recently died - S.I.). She now intends to hold meetings every Tuesday afternoon.

Nevertheless, she believes that the committee's work will not be completed during the summer session, but only in the winter session. And this is no coincidence.

The summer session started just a month ago, and is on the verge of ending in another month and a half. If Avraham is persistent and the Knesset survives, she will manage to complete the new code by the festive session marking the Knesset's 59th birthday, which is set to take place next Tu B'Shvat.