Math 101 / Dalia Itzik Beats the Public, 2-0

Haaretz is a bit of an odd duck on the Israeli newspaper scene. During the last year, it devoted much front-page to the reform in the mental health system. Probably not many readers identified with the agenda that the paper set. But the Haaretz editors felt that the debate over who should bear responsibility for treating tens of thousands of mentally ill people, who are among the weakest members of society, should interest anybody to whom the image of Israeli society matters.

Perhaps not many share the interest that Haaretz evinced in the fate of mental patients. Apparently our elected officials in the Knesset, who were responsible for determining whether the proposed reform would help protect the rights of the mental patients, don't.

The fact is that the cabinet presented the bill governing the proposed reform to the Knesset in mid-year, and it even passed the first of the necessary three readings before becoming law in July. Four months later the bill is stuck. The Knesset Welfare Committee, which was supposed to discuss the reform, held not one meeting on the topic, though the reform is supposed to come into force in January 2008. "The Knesset was on recess and then the Welfare Committee was busy discussing the organ transplants law. It will find the time in two weeks," thus the Knesset spokeswoman.

"Dalia Itzik conquered the treasury," headlines blared yesterday, referring to the fact that all of the structural reforms included in the 2008 Economic Arrangements Law had been rendered impotent. The pundits explained that Itzik was the first Knesset speaker who managed to stop this anti-democratic beast, that Economic Arrangements thing, through which government after government passed hundreds of weird acts with no debate for the last 20 years.

Her victory, we were assured, is a victory for democracy. From now on, structural changes will be severed from the economic arrangements laws, and each will be discussed separately at the relevant Knesset committees. After proper debate in the house, which Itzik vowed will never take more than three months, each structural change will be put forth as an act by itself. That sounds promising until one recalls the mental health reform. That proposal had been brought by itself for debate in the Knesset. It had not been part of the 2008 Economic Arrangements Law. That didn't exactly lead the Knesset to gird its loins and discuss the thing. And it isn't alone.

Take the bill that would reform the health maintenance organizations (kupot holim). The proposal, which arose from recommendations of a common committee of officials for the Health, Finance and Justice ministries in 1999, was supposed to lay down a sensible management structure for the HMOs, once and for all. It was supposed to determine that they would be subjected to proper public supervision. The cabinet tried to raise the bill before the Knesset three times, to no avail. Under pressure from Knesset speaker Itzik, the bill was split off from the 2007 Economic Arrangements bill. She promised that the Knesset would pass it within three months. The Welfare Committee discussed it once, in June.

The claim that the economic arrangements bills cause other bills to wade through the Knesset without debate (because the parliamentarians don't have the chance to study the proposals properly) is specious. The truth is that even when the representatives have all the time in the world, they don't debate bills properly.

How long does it take, on average, from the time a bill is raised until it passes or is rejected? We asked the Knesset spokesman, who said the Knesset doesn't have such a statistic. The Knesset does not keep track of its legislative moves and productivity, and for good reason. If it did, it would show how utterly ineffectual the Knesset is.

So Dalia Itzik vanquished the Treasury and won herself plaudits from every direction. Two goals in her favor. But what good will the public receive from her victory? Unless Itzik comes to her senses and starts managing the body that she heads, the public will get nothing. So far it's 2-0 in Itzik's favor, but that zero is us unless she starts actually running the Knesset, forcing the committees to set transparent, efficient priorities of work, and meeting their goals, too.