The Knesset Is the Place to Talk

The argument that a Knesset discussion will ‘bury Israel’s natural gas in the ground’ is a no-confidence vote in parliamentary democracy.

A few months ago, opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich, civil society organizations and I petitioned the High Court of Justice seeking to transfer the decision on natural gas exports to the Knesset. Many people lifted an eyebrow. Why is a member of the ruling party petitioning against the government? Let me reassure my critic: This isn’t a private vendetta, nor am I joining the opposition. But I understand the confusion – a Knesset petition to the High Court against the government is no simple matter, especially when one of the petitioners is from the ruling party.

So let me explain the reasons for my action. First, it’s not about the percentage of gas allotted for export. I’m talking about procedure, not the arrangement itself. Exploiting natural gas is an economic and security issue whose consequences will be long-lasting. In such decisions, the people have a right to a broad and meaningful hearing via their elected officials.

This is why prime ministers since Menachem Begin have asked the Knesset to approve key diplomatic moves, even though from every legal angle they didn’t have to. The gas issue was also brought to the Knesset for a decision, with the Sheshinski Committee’s fiscal recommendations enshrined in legislation. This set a precedent for any subject clearly related to this issue.

The natural gas issue, including exports, is on the seam between business and government. A responsible discussion requires not only thoroughness but also the revealing of everyone’s special interests. Only a transparent and in-depth discussion in the Knesset will enable that; only there can we examine basic questions like whether Israel’s keeping enough gas for 25 years can really protect its energy independence. Only there can we properly examine whether exports will affect the value of the shekel or the volume of investment in Israel, not to mention other issues replete with conflicts of interest.

If the guiding considerations are concealed in classified documents, the people might become suspicious. I don’t think the government is guilty of opportunism. The government was appointed by the Knesset to govern. But the real test of governance lies in identifying issues that require a broad and transparent discussion in the Knesset. The argument that the Knesset discussion “will bury the gas in the ground” is a no-confidence vote in parliamentary democracy.

The Knesset has proved that it can conduct an in-depth discussion of government reforms even when strapped for time, as was the case with the Sheshinksi recommendations and the reform of the Israel Lands Administration. The argument that bringing the discussion to the Knesset could spook investors is like saying that investors will flee for fear that the process will be discussed publicly. If that’s true, maybe it’s better that they fled.

So why did I petition the High Court? I don’t like sending issues belonging to the legislative branch to the judicial branch. If I had another parliamentary tool for bringing the discussion to the Knesset, I wouldn’t have turned to the High Court.

Late Supreme Court Vice President Menachem Elon once said about the judicial system: “A judicial system cannot be nurtured from the body of the law alone. The judicial system’s body needs a soul, sometimes even an extra soul.” And I say to my friends in the country’s leadership, those words are also true of Israeli democracy. It not only needs a soul, but an extra soul.

Emil Salman