How Low Can You Go?

In 2001, then-Knesset speaker Avraham Burg took an unusual step and commissioned a large public opinion poll by Dr. Mina Tzemah on the Knesset's status, called the Knesset Index. At the time, 88 percent of those surveyed declared that they were not satisfied with our legislative branch, 55 percent said they had no confidence in it (only 14 percent had full or great confidence), and half the respondents were ashamed of it. Burg planned to conduct the index every year to shake things up and spur change.

As it turned out, the MKs were not very bothered, Burg abandoned politics and the first index was also the last.

In 2006, Dr. Sheila Hattis Rolef of the Knesset Research and Information Center published a comprehensive survey about the status of parliaments all over the world, which proved that the Knesset is not alone. The degree of confidence in the Polish parliament, for example, is 8 percent, and we, after all, have imported so many politicians from there. Confidence in the U.S. Senate is at 10 percent.

There is no question that parliaments around the globe are suffering a crisis in status, stemming at least partly from the way the media cover them, what they cover (esoteric, scandalous items) and what they don't cover (complex legislative work).

Researchers give additional reasons: the corruption of politicians, the many promises they cannot keep, and a decline in social solidarity and in the importance people attribute to the community. Yet Israel is in constant existential danger, so the importance of public confidence in its parliament is much greater. It's hard to find consolation in the fact that this is a global problem.

Hattis Rolef's study contains a series of global rankings in confidence. If we put ourselves in the European ranking for 2005, we wind up between 28th and 29th place, with only Bulgaria and Poland behind us. If we lower expectations and put Israel in the so-called Latinobarometer, which examines South American parliaments, we wind up in 15th place out of 17, alongside Colombia.

In other words, it's hard to get any lower. But Hattis Rolef says it's impossible to make conclusions about Israel from all this because these were different surveys conducted by different methods.

Former MK Colette Avital spent decades in the Israeli foreign service. She has no doubt that Israeli parliamentarians suffer more contempt than those in the West. "There are parliaments with far more prestige - in Britain, France or the German Bundestag." She notes that in such countries "there is much greater strictness about the level and education of MPs."

But former Knesset speaker Shevach Weiss, a political science professor and former Israeli ambassador to Poland, believes we really are not exceptional in relation to the rest of the world. "Representatives from Italy and Belgium told me they are a regular subject of jokes and spite," he says.

Weiss says that even in Israel the phenomenon is not new. In his first book, in 1975, he points out that the press has a low opinion of the Knesset. "That means there has been a tradition for an entire generation of collective debasement of the parliament."

Of course, Israeli politicians also show contempt for the Knesset and have contributed greatly to its decline in status. This is reflected in the large number of petitions they submit to the High Court of Justice against the Knesset. Also, when they have something really important to say they prefer to say it in private meetings rather than in the plenum.

A report by the Progressive Policy Institute, for example, reveals that the number of elected officials who participate in the Herzliya Conference surged from eight in 2002 to 28 last year. Those with the highest rate of participation in the conference are Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni and the Meridor family (whose sons were absent from only one conference).

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon chose the conference to announce the Gaza disengagement and the acceptance of the road map. Why do they like these conferences so much? Maybe because there is no heckling there, only applause.