Call to Order / Take the Money and Run

Is it permitted and advisable to use the word "Alperons" (a notorious debt-collection family) when referring to debt-collection agencies? The question hovered in the air at a meeting of the Knesset Constitution Committee last Monday. The chair of the Bailiff's Office Committee of the Israel Bar Association, Sorin Ganot, said: "I once mentioned 'the Alperons,' and then one of them told me, 'if you use our name one more time...' Since then, I've been careful to speak only about debt-collection agencies."

MK David Rotem (National Union) responded that if a bill were to ensure that the Bailiff's Office could not collect checks for small sums, then it would be better "to amend the law to allow collection agencies to be established, like the name that isn't allowed to be said." He continued in the same cynical spirit, remarking that the collection agencies would do a much better job of debt collection than the Bailiff's Office, because "either you pay the money or they deep-six your corpse."

The discussion focused on a proposal to amend paragraph 18a.(a) of the Bailiff's Office Law to ensure that the Bailiff's Office not collect debts through checks for less than NIS 500.

The deputy director for enforcement and collection at the Bailiff's Office, Zion Caspi, said that in terms of efficiency, "if someone transfers a debt of NIS 100 to us, it's preferable for us to give him the money" rather than collect the debt. He also claimed that for a debt of NIS 100, the debtor is required to pay NIS 900 (including lawyers' fees), and therefore the debtors refuse to pay. He says: "We have to prevent a situation in which the connection to the original debt is lost."

Despite Caspi's words, not a single member of the committee supported the proposal. Attorney Becky-Cohen Keshet, from Itach - Women Lawyers for Social Justice, said that women of little means would not be able to repay loans without post-dated checks for small sums. Ganot said that the amendment to the law would harm "the weaker classes - in other words, those who don't have credit cards." Rotem claimed that this is an unconstitutional clause that undermines the check recipient's right to property.

Prof. Menahem Ben Sasson, chair of the committee and an expert on Judaism in Islamic countries in the Middle Ages, remarked that the Talmud forbade checks. In the Middle Ages, the rabbis of Middle Eastern Jewry allowed their use, but the Ashkenazim (European Jewry) capitulated to checks only in the 14th century.

Despite the historical hostility of Ashkenazim to checks, and because of the firm opposition in the committee to amending the law, Ben Sasson dispersed the session in the middle and sent everyone home to do more research. The probable outcome: The Bailiff's Office will handle every check, but checks for under NIS 100 will be transferred to a fast track that does not require lawyers or a fee for professional services.

The mother of all laws

The bill MK Amira Dotan (Kadima) proposed and which passed in the Knesset plenum last Tuesday on first reading presents a new type of affirmative action for women. The proposal states that any bill that passes a preliminary reading will be sent to the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women for perusal. The authority will examine the effects of the bill on gender equality. In other words: Does the law increase or limit discrimination against women? Dotan says that, in many cases, the implications are not obvious and therefore there is a need to have them examined by an external group.

In several Western countries, there is already a law or a guideline requiring the examination of the gender implications of every bill. Dotan said that when she came to the Knesset, she was surprised to discover that Israel had no such law. She says that passing it will make it clear that in Israel, "we don't only talk about equality, we practice equality, too." The chair of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, Gideon Saar (Likud) said that in Israel you don't pay any political price if you work consistently against the interests of women, and Dotan's law can change that. Only the future will prove to what extent the law will strength the status of women. What is already clear is that it will make a marvelous contribution to strengthening the status of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women.

Standing in opposition to the proposal is MK Nissim Zeev of Shas. He accused Dotan of trying to place the authority above the Knesset committees. Zeev also claimed that examining the laws will require many superfluous jobs, and asked why they were not examining the implications of every law for other groups - such as Ethiopian immigrants or Arabs. He says that Dotan will not improve the process of legislation but will complicate it. MK Zeev Elkin of Kadima replied that the Knesset committees will not be bound by the opinion. "If the legislator so desires, he will use the opinion. If he doesn't wish to use it, he won't." Elkin also noted that the committees will not be required to wait for the opinion if it is delayed.

The truth is that two laws already exist that are similar to Dotan's proposal: a law that states that the Commissioner of Future Generations will examine the implications of laws for future generations, and a law that requires MKs and the government to examine the effects of bills on children's rights. The success of these two laws is very limited and in effect the implications for future generations and for children do not usually merit any special attention. Dotan says that the law that deals with effects on children does not provide for a body that is responsible for giving an opinion. She hopes that giving responsibility to the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women will ensure that her law will have a patron. That is, a matron.

A short-term law?

One of the only reforms in the system of government accepted by all parts of the coalition is the MK Replacement Law (i.e. the "Norwegian law"). This law states that an MK who is appointed a minister or a deputy minister and who is not a party leader, will resign from the Knesset upon his appointment, and the next MK on the list will enter the Knesset in his stead. When the minister or deputy minister finishes his job, he will return to the Knesset, and the MK who replaced him will be forced to part from his seat. The objective: to put about 20 active MKs in the Knesset in place of those who have assumed ministerial positions.

Saar, who is also the head of the Likud faction, used the session that took place last Wednesday in the Knesset Constitution Committee to make it clear that the Norwegian law was unacceptable to him. He believes the addition of 20 MKs in place of ministers will lead to extensive and superfluous private legislation, and will also make it difficult to recruit a majority of votes in order to pass government laws and to prevent the opposition's laws. He believes it will destroy the ability to govern.

Saar, who was chair of the coalition as well as cabinet secretary during the previous term, is considered an expert on the coalition's functioning. "When we're in the opposition, we don't mind if the Norwegian law is applied; but when we're in the government, we plan to govern," he said. Therefore, he added, the life of the Norwegian law, if it goes into effect, will be one of the shortest in the history of the Knesset. "The basic policy guidelines and the coalition agreement of the next Likud government will include its cancellation."

If in many areas, there has been progress in recent years when it comes to freedom of information, in the area of planning and construction there has been a regression. In June 2005, I revealed here the fact that the National Council for Planning and Construction and many of the district and local planning and construction committees had stopped keeping minutes, on the orders of the Interior Ministry. The ministry decided to define these meetings, in which decisions worth millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars were made, as "internal discussions." Minutes were kept only at meetings where opposition to plans is heard, but not from the closed discussions where the decisions were made. Instead, only the decisions were recorded.

The claim of the Interior Ministry was that keeping minutes prevented members of the committees and professionals from expressing themselves freely. How convenient. Without minutes, it is very difficult to attack committee decisions in the courts. Without minutes, it is also much more difficult to prove acts of corruption.

Two weeks ago, the Knesset plenum approved on second and third readings a law restoring the prior status quo.

The committees will not only be required to keep minutes, but most of them will also be required to tape the meetings. The minutes and the tapes will be available to anyone who asks for them, without payment.

The minutes will also be published on the Internet. Interior Ministry officials got a very good lesson in freedom of information from the architects of the law, National Union Chairman Benny Elon and Knesset Ethics Committee Chairman Haim Oron (Meretz).

MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), who presented the law in the plenum, said that "when things are done under cover of darkness, and when it is not clear what happened and how, and who voted and how, many things that should not happen are liable to happen." Elon said that the discussions of the planning committees are an example of the connection between capital and government. "When you turn a region from an agricultural area into a construction area that can earn billions, entrepreneurship is a welcome thing - but it can also destroy things," he said.