Maybe That's Also Something

Olmert is furious over the fact that those who summon him are not obligated to participate in the debate.

Beginning next Knesset session, ministers will be required to report at least once every six months on their ministries' activities - their budget, the manner in which they spend it, their main objectives, and the manner in which they meet them.

Does that sound like a no-brainer?

Hard to believe, but it is not. The change in the regulations, which will obligate ministers to appear before the parliamentary committees and the cameras and also to hear the reactions of Knesset members, was only passed during this past winter session - and is nothing less than a minor revolution.

The Knesset has barely any tools for carrying out its duties as the body overseeing the executive branch. The semiannual report by ministers will give it an important tool.

All of the major reforms the government and Knesset initiated are stuck right now. The reform to change the system of government is stuck because of an unsolvable dispute with Shas, over legislation that would give the largest party first crack at forming a cabinet. Work on the constitution is ongoing, but the odds of it passing are extremely low. Work on the new ethical code for the Knesset is advancing apace, but the argument over whether an ethics adviser will be appointed for the Knesset is holding up the discussions.

The only reform that has made fast progress is the reform of Knesset activity, initiated by Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik. It was coordinated in advance with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and with the opposition, and the chair of the Knesset House Committee, David Tal (Kadima), helped a lot to pass it. True, it does not concern a loaded subject like changes to the system of government, nor to a constitution, but there is no doubt that Itzik taught the MKs a lesson on how you promote political moves without stepping on mines.

The reform includes several items that could make Knesset debates more meaningful. In recent years ministers have refrained from responding in person to motions for the agenda or urgent parliamentary questions. They would send in their place the minister who serves as liaison between the government and Knesset, or the minister on Knesset duty, which rendered both types of proceedings empty of content, because the public wants to know what the relevant minister has to say.

From now on ministers will have to respond in person to motions for the agenda and urgent parliamentary questions, except in extraordinary cases.

Government ministries will be required to provide information, reports and documents to the Knesset Research and Information Center. MKs were fairly stunned to discover that the Justice Ministry objects to that clause. Naturally that only made them more motivated to pass it.

It looks like the clause that will receive the most attention concerns "parliamentary question time."

Each week at least one minister will spend an hour fielding topical questions that MKs had submitted to him or her several days earlier. That is supposed to generate relevant and interesting discussion in the plenum, enable ministers to hold a direct and continuous debate with Knesset members, and restore to plenum debates some of their lost media interest.

The truth is that these reforms could have been enacted during the last Knesset session, but Itzik was in no hurry.

She was hoping that the MKs would in return wave the ministers' duty to reply to regular parliamentary questions. After all, whoever gets something from the ministers should also give them something.

That didn't happen. MKs are overly suspicious and feel powerless.

That is perhaps the reason why Itzik has no intention of pushing another of the reform's clauses: the option of summoning any minister to a special debate in the plenum by gathering the signatures of 40 MKs. Currently that method can be used only to summon the prime minister.

Olmert is furious over the fact that those who summon him are not obligated to participate in the debate.

Itzik intends during the summer session to pass an amendment to the regulations, requiring minimal attendance at discussions with the prime minister.

Itzik summed up the winter session on its final day, 10 days ago, with the words: "You have to admit that this session didn't create a lot of embarrassments, and that's also something." Nor will these changes rehabilitate the Knesset's lost dignity; that is too big a task.

But these changes will strengthen it a little, restore part of the separation of powers, and put part of public debate back in the Knesset.

And they also show that the leadership is prepared to do something about its image. Maybe that's also something.