The Technicality in the Knesset Bestowing a Whole Lot of Power

Uri Misgav
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The Knesset holds a special session for the swearing-in of President Isaac Herzog, July.
Uri Misgav

Over the last two years, a crucial change has taken place, under the radar, in Israel’s system of government. The change was legally anchored in Amendments 49 and 51 to the Basic Law: Knesset and did not come to the attention of the High Court of Justice. It didn’t bother most Israelis like some other more burning news items do.

Since these changes were brought about by two successive and competing governments, they didn’t give rise to any ideological contention. Each side raised its voice a little when it was in the opposition but did the same thing while in the ruling coalition. But the change is a harmful and corrupting one. It’s called the “expanded Norwegian Law,” but should be called the “Norwegian putsch.”

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The Norwegian putsch allows cabinet members and their deputies to resign from the Knesset according to a formula determined by the size of the party they belong to. Replacing them are party members who are further down on the party’s slate of Knesset candidates. The resignations can be reversed if the ministers and deputies cease to be cabinet members or if they have second thoughts, which ejects the people replacing them from the Knesset.

The present government has broken all records in applying this law: 21 ministers have resigned, bringing in other members of their parties. Currently, only seven cabinet members are also Knesset members. This is a radical change that is counter to Israel’s democratic character, one with substantial impact. The legislative authority is weakened while the executive branch operates almost disconnected from the legislative assembly.

There are currently four ranks in the governing coalition. The most desirable one is obviously that of a minister who is not a Knesset member. These ministers are not required to attend plenary sessions or take part in Knesset committees, except when answering questions. They don’t even have to adhere to the most technical and basic public scrutiny, in the form of the Knesset attendance board which shows which public representative bothers to show up for work. They can also fly abroad freely during Knesset votes, something that was uncustomary in the past, requiring at least an offset agreement with an opposition member. Along with them are a handful of people from the older system, serving in the cabinet as well as the Knesset.

The third rank consists of coalition members who did not receive a ministerial position. They are required to bolster the majority in plenary sessions, to promote legislation and ordinances, as well as serving on Knesset committees. They share the burden with members of the fourth and lowliest rank, which can be likened to laborers on contract.

The last group consists of those who entered the Knesset following the resignation of cabinet members. They thereby owe the latter their gratitude, taking care not to annoy them, since like Cinderella, they are always under threat of returning to their previous dull life. One need not pity them, but from the perspective of a democracy, they are enfeebled lawmakers who don’t really enjoy intellectual autonomy or the freedom to vote as they wish. They realize full well that if they support their faction’s departure from the coalition, they will automatically lose their position. Moreover, they are not truly representatives of the public, since the public in fact did not give their party enough votes to get them into the Knesset.

But the most harmful damage lies in the excessive rights the Norwegian putsch gives them and their parties. The 21 lawmakers who joined the Knesset under the auspices of this law are entitled to a large salary, a comfortable package of benefits, a state-owned car, a spacious office, two parliamentary aides and a budget for maintaining ties with their voters. This is a waste of millions of shekels at the expense of the taxpayer, who is currently paying for 141 ministers and lawmakers, instead of 120.

But this corruption is not just about money. The present coalition was launched with a close 61:59 lead, almost a tie. With the Norwegian putsch, it effectively has 82 representatives enjoying resources, public standing and media exposure. This is an organizational advantage that can be leveraged into the accumulation of political power. Thus, the Norwegian putsch substantially discriminates against the opposition, constituting a tilt of the electoral reality and a distortion of voters’ wishes. It should not be tolerated just because it’s now convenient for a particular camp. It’s immoral and unwise, since the wheel of fortune may reverse its course.

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