Knesset C'tees Get New, Modern Wing

Those who attended yesterday's Knesset Finance Committee meeting on whether various life-saving medicines should be included in the national health insurance plan could scarcely breathe. Dozens of representatives of the finance and health ministries, the health maintenance organizations and consumer and health associations, along with a plethora of lobbyists representing various organizations, were crammed into two rows of chairs behind the Knesset members' seats. Some could not find a chair and had to stand. "Open the window - we can't breathe!" shouted one faction whip.

Soon, however, MKs and others who attend committee sessions will be able to breathe easily. Starting next week, the committees will gradually move into the Knesset's new wing.

The new wing is three stories tall and takes up 17,000 square meters. It includes 16 spacious halls for the Knesset committees.

Sophisticated technology will be installed in these halls to enable live broadcasts of committee debates over the Internet or the Knesset television channel. MKs will be able to access the Web from their seats via their laptops. There will be plenty of space for the representatives of various organizations who attend committee meetings.

Committee chairmen will have two-room office suites for themselves and their aides, adjacent to the committee meeting rooms. These suites will include a bathroom and shower.

The dairy cafeteria now located in the old wing will move to the new wing, which will also have a high-tech studio for the Knesset television channel and a decorative pool at the entrance.

Various parts of the new wing have been declared off-limits to anyone except MKs and Knesset employees. People invited to committee meetings will go straight to the meeting rooms from the new wing's entrance and will not be allowed into other parts of the building. That is a marked change from the current situation, whereby people invited to committee sessions must pass the plenum and the ministers' offices in order to reach the committee rooms.

The opening of the new committee wing is merely one element in a major renovation that the Knesset has been undergoing for the last seven years. Last year, another new wing was opened that included 48 spacious offices (complete with bathrooms and showers) for Knesset members, as well as a gym for the MKs and a large underground parking lot.

In total, this renovation project will cost an estimated NIS 350-400 million. The work is being done by the Shapir construction firm via the Private Finance Initiative system, which means that Shapir finances the work, and the Knesset will pay it monthly rent for the next 25 years. Only at the end of that period will the Knesset actually own the new wing (including the underground parking lot).

The new wing will also increase the Knesset's municipal taxes (arnona) by NIS 6 million a year.

Two members of the Knesset Budget Committee, Chairman David Tal (Kadima) and MK Esterina Tartman (Yisrael Beiteinu), toured the new wing yesterday. Both were pleased. "The new wing will provide dignified quarters for our parliamentary work," Tal said.