Call to Order / Stories From the Next Session

Under the fallout from the storm of the Winograd report, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week began debating the controversial Tal Law.

The summer session of the Knesset, which starts today, stands in the shadow of a collapsing coalition. Between Winograd A and Winograd B, and between Lindenstrauss C and Lindenstrauss D, some of the Knesset members will also try to do some parliamentary work. If there's enough time, that is (the session is a mere 12 weeks, one of which is a short week because of Shavuot) and if it is possible to get a majority vote in the House.

Under the fallout from the storm of the Winograd report, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week began debating the controversial Tal Law. One of the disadvantages of discussing a law in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is that the committee's discussions are held away from the public and media's eye. In the case of the Tal Law, the presence of the media seems imperative.

When the law was first passed five years ago, a special Knesset committee was set up for it, headed by former Labor MK Yossi Katz. The chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Tzachi Hanegbi, is planning to hold a series of discussions about the law in the next few weeks and says he is considering opening one of them to the media.

The Tal Law is a temporary law. It legislates the arrangement to defer military service for yeshiva students and gives them a year outside the yeshiva without being drafted. The question the committee must deliberate is the length of the extension. Four months ago, the government decided to give it the maximum possible extension of five years. That is also the position Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh took in the discussion held in the committee last Monday. It's doubtful whether this is what will happen in the end. For the High Court of Justice to approve an extension, it is reasonable to assume that it will be necessary to make do with a shorter period, perhaps three years.

Hanegbi decided that there would not be a vote immediately but that a series of experts would be heard first - a decision that bothers MK Avraham Ravitz of United Torah Judaism. The law expires at the end of July. Ravitz would have liked the vote to have taken place now, while there is still a coalition that can achieve a majority. In another two months' time, it's possible there will not be anyone to talk to and that the ultra-Orthodox will remain without a legal basis for the arrangement deferring military service.

Minimizing the committees

Reforms in the system of government and, in particular, in the relationship between the Knesset and the government took center stage in the parliamentary debate of the previous session, but nothing was approved. The chances that the Tal Law will pass during the present session are relatively high because it has an end date. But will it be possible to pass reforms?

One of the reforms that has been derailed is the proposal by Likud faction chair Gideon Sa'ar and MK Uri Ariel to cut down the number of members in committees to 11 (in a regular committee) and 13 (in a senior committee). This would be instead of 15 and 17, respectively, today. The proposal, which has wide support in the Knesset, had passed in a preliminary reading. However, in the last week of the winter session it was voted down in its first reading 37-38, missing it by one vote. Some of the supporters were unable to get to the vote in time. Sa'ar and Ariel hastened to present their draft once again, this time in cooperation with the former coalition chair, Avigdor Yitzhaki. The new proposal is more moderate. Three levels were fixed for the number of MKs per committee: 13, 11 and 15. This was done to quell the fears of the small parties, who are scared they will not receive representation in the important committees.

Why minimize the number of committee members? It is no secret that the really important work of the Knesset, both the preaparation of laws and the supervision of the government, is done in the committees. However, there are some MKs who are members of five committees or more. Since the committees meet at the same hours, the MKs can't manage to fulfill their duties, and committees meetings, like the plenum, go unattended for long periods. The new draft law is supposed to make the MKs be members of only two or three committees and capable of concentrating on their work.

Avraham's reforms

To the extent that it is dependent on Ruhama Avraham, the chair of the Knesset House Committee, Sa'ar's draft law, which she considers important and fitting, will pass once again. Avraham herself would like to advance two important corrections during this session. One of these is the introduction of a chapter to the Knesset rules that would oblige ministers to come to the Knesset once every few weeks to answer questions the MKs may have about their ministerial affairs. The objective, she says, is to strengthen the Knesset's supervision of the executive branch of government. The hearing is meant to restore the institution of taking questions from the floor - an institution that's being emptied of all content. The ministers give a delayed response to questions (when interest has already waned) and often refrain from passing on information that is not to their liking. The hearing will make it possible for the MKs to get immediate reponses from the minister or his aides.

In 2006, Avraham chalked up a victory on the subject of limiting the Economic Arrangements Law. The law is effectively a package of economic (and sometimes also non-economic) reforms, many of which would otherwise have had great difficulty passing in the regular legislative process. That is why the treasury adds them to the budget in a move that bypasses the regular legislative procedure. Now Avraham wants the limitations on the Economic Arrangements Law to be codified in the Knesset rules. She would also like to obligate the Finance Ministry to submit the bill to the Knesset several months before the end of the year and to divide up the law among as many committees as possible.

The forbidden freebie

The Knesset Ethics Committee, headed by Haim Oron, will no doubt be busy with an exchange of curses between MKs from the right and the Arab parties following the Bishara affair. Between discussions on discipline, it will try to find a solution to the question of whether MKs are allowed to attend theater premieres. Five years ago, on February 12, 2002, the Ethics Committee decided that MKs are forbidden to accept freebies. Inter alia, it was forbidden to accept "invitations, subscription tickets or tickets to events or facilities where entrance has to be paid for." The significance is that an MK must pay for the sports or entertainment events he attends, including theater performances, concerts and movies.

The trouble with premieres is that even if the MK wants to pay, there is no possibility of doing so because tickets are not sold to them. Oron says that as a result, MKs from the south have stopped showing up at premieres at the Be'er Sheva theater. The theater is pressuring them to come because there aren't many well-known national figures in the area and the absence of MKs Oron and Shai Hermesh affects the prestige of the event. The committee will have to find a creative solution.