An Out-of-touch Knesset

The Knesset House Committee acted as expected: It rejected the proposals that would weaken its role as the sole authority determining when to remove an MK's immunity from prosecution.

The House Committee refused to hand over authority to an external source, free of all suspicion of unfair partisan considerations, and also rejected an alternative proposal maintaining its authority but limiting its extent. This was not surprising: The members of the committee represent 120 persons of which a growing number neither comprehend the meaning of their post nor its status. In the best case, they are simply cut off from the spirit of the rules and regulations established by the fathers of Israel's parliamentary system.

The Law of Immunity for MKs was passed in 1951, when the political atmosphere was full of strong parliamentary and ideological rivalries, but also included a sense of common destiny and of partnership in a common way of life. In general, the MKs in the early Knesset were individuals whose lifestyle was relatively modest and who viewed their public role as service for the welfare of the whole. When it became known that one of them, Eliezer Livneh, built a villa for himself in Jerusalem, his party, Mapai, demanded that he give it up.

The Law of Immunity fit the period: It provided the MKs, among others, protection against legal proceedings not necessarily linked with their public role. The defense provided to the MKs was manifested in a special procedure authorizing the House Committee to decide whether to lift an MK's immunity in order to be prosecuted. The reason for this flack jacket, which does not exist in other parliaments, stemed from the possibility that the regime might turn against opposition MKs and set the police on them. A common example then was for a traffic policeman to stop opposition MKs on the road to Jerusalem and delay them - thus the MKs missed an important vote in the Knesset.

Over the years, the special immunity regime was amended (for example, MKs are not immune on traffic violations), but not adjusted according to our changed political culture and the quality of individuals elected to the Knesset.

When the House Committee reached its decision last Wednesday, the police was investigating five MKs, who are under caution, for alleged voting violations in the Knesset. This was weeks after it refused to lift the immunity of MK Naomi Blumenthal, against whom the attorney general recommended that charges be brought. The decision came a day before Gilad Sharon [the prime minister's son] exercised his right to silence while being questioned by police about allegations related to his father and several days before MK Omri Sharon [also son of the prime minister] is expected to be questioned on the same matter.

The innocence of the early `50s is long gone; today the Knesset operates as a closed guild, at best, whose purpose is to protect its members. It does not provide them with an umbrella against possible persecution from the regime as a result of political rivalry, but is used as a refuge against the arm of the law. The Knesset House Committee was presented with a proposal by the Nissim Committee, to grant power to an external public committee to rule on requests for removing the immunity of MKs. This proposal was rejected on the basis that any further deterioration in the standing of the house of representatives must be prevented.

The Knesset's need, in principle, to retain its authority, must not be belittled. However, it is doubtful whether the fanatic need to guarantee the MKs' immunity against criminal charges is justified. The Knesset will manage to rehabilitate its standing with appropriate behavior by its members, and not by forcefully imposing its will in an effort to discriminate in their favor and save them from being brought to trial.

The Knesset House Committee exposed its true motives when it rejected, against the wishes of Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, the alternative, and more limited proposal. It sought to limit the committee's authority by allowing the Knesset plenum to vote on whether to reject the request of the attorney general to lift an MK's immunity. It was noted and remembered that the MKs of Labor (except Yitzhak Herzog), Shas, United Torah Judaism, Shinui, Hadash-Balad, the National Union, and some from the Likud, opted to leave the current situation unchanged, leaving themselves open to the charge of assisting in the corruption of public life and in undermining the rule of law.