Analysis

Endless Elections Have Put Government in Hibernation

Data show how cabinet and Knesset activity has slowed to almost nothing since election first called a year ago

Hagai Amit
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Lawmakers sit during a session of the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 11, 2019.
Lawmakers sit during a session of the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 11, 2019. Credit: AFP
Hagai Amit

It’s December 2019, and Israel is again facing a general election. Once again, the left is deliberating over whether the Labor Party and Meretz should run on a joint slate or remain separate. Once again, as in April’s election, Habayit Hayehudi is running together with the Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit. Once again, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked say they will be running as a team.

To the average Israeli, the game of political musical chairs is no longer interesting. The disconnect between the voters and the politicians has never been greater.

Exactly a year ago Wednesday – December 24, 2018 – the heads of the parties making up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition met without Avigdor Lieberman, who had left the government weeks before, and decided that the Knesset would disperse and an early election would be held. By now, most of us have forgotten why, but the stated reason was an issue of the separation of religion and the state: A January 15, 2019 deadline was looming and the coalition had failed to muster the votes needed to pass a new law on military conscription for young ultra-Orthodox men.

That day, both the executive and legislative branches became lame ducks, unable to pass legislation or make major decisions.

The announcement the coalition sent out that fateful day a year ago seems amusing now: “Out of a sense of fiscal and national responsibility, the heads of the coalition parties, by unanimous decision, have decided to disperse the Knesset.” Amusing because it’s the same coalition that has since dragged Israel into two additional elections at a time when data testify to the precipitous drop in cabinet and Knesset activity that had any bearing on the ordinary citizen.

Cabinet appointments continued as usual during the year, as new defense, justice, transportation, education, foreign affairs, immigrant absorption, religious services and construction and housing ministers were named. Likewise for deputy ministers and appointments to government committees. The government even decided to end the cap on the number of ministers and deputy ministers. It also had time to widen the powers of ministers and approve trips abroad.

But according to data collected by the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, the number of cabinet resolutions approved dropped to 294 in 2019, from 799 the year before.

One-third of the resolutions were “administrative.” An additional one-sixth related to real estate and housing. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has continued to advance his program to reduce home prices by measures that include streamlining the approval process. His efforts have failed. Prices continued to rise in 2019, in part due to the recognition that Kahlon’s tenure in the treasury has neared its end.

Beyond passing administrative and property-related resolutions, the cabinet found time to vote in measures that will have no significant effect on the average citizen, for instance approving new postage stamp designs for 2020, new rules on who gets to light torches during the 72nd Independence Day ceremony and the new Trump Heights community in the Golan Heights.

The absence of consequential cabinet resolutions isn’t the fault of the government. It goes back, among other things, to a High Court of Justice ruling according to which a caretaker government must avoid making critical decisions except in the most urgent cases.

Despite this, it did just that, for instance, approving a mechanism that would vet foreign investments in sectors deemed vital to national security, a master plan for infrastructure, a five-year investment framework for the resort city of Eilat, measures to strengthen the communities close to the Gaza Strip, trade agreements with European countries and a pension plan for defense workers that will cost the state billions of shekels in the coming years.

That said, in its favor, it also approved a program to fight human trafficking, spending on the Bedouin and Circassian communities to help offset the effects of the so-called nation-state law and an expanded program for fighting violence in the family.

The Knesset’s record for 2019 was even worse. Between January 1 and December 15, 2019, lawmakers passed just 42 pieces of legislation, fewer than one-fourth the number in the same period the year before. Of those 42 laws, 36 had been approved before January 16 as the government tried to clear the table of legislation.

Since January 17, the Knesset has passed just six laws, most of them dealing with the election, including dispersing the Knesset, legislation concerning the election commission and a temporary amendment to the budget law. However, it did pass legislation making paying for prostitution illegal, regulating the free loan societies widely used in the Haredi world, known as gemahim, and amendments to the bankruptcy law.

The Knesset committees have performed no better. The Citizens’ Empowerment Center found that the Knesset Finance Committee met 94 times in 2019, versus 339 in 2018. The last time was on Monday, when in a marathon session it approved 11 billion shekels ($3.1 billion) in spending appropriations to keep ministries running. The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee met just 20 times, versus 116 in 2018.

Agendas were issued for just eight ministerial committee meetings this year, including those on housing, symbols and ceremonies, Shabbat work permits and on fighting violence (which met once in January). The committee on the status of women didn’t meet at all (both meetings scheduled for January were canceled). The committee on labor and welfare met four times, all in January. It has yet to hold deliberations on two important issues – preschool supervision and insurance coverage for construction workers.

If there is a rule about what gets priority in a year when politicians are working full-time to ensure their political survival it seems that the weakest segments of the population get the shortest shrift.

Einat Fischer-Lalo, the director of the Citizens’ Empowerment Center, is counting a return to business as usual next year, but given how long it is likely to take to form a government after the March 2 vote that’s not enough, she says. There will be months more of inactivity.

“In view of the exceptional situation and the length of time, the government and the Knesset should identify and implement the mechanisms necessary to promote activities during the transition period as well,” she says.