The Newest Game Show?

At Question Time in the British Parliament, it is said, the MPs have to book their places in advance for lack of room in the hall and latecomers have to stand uncomfortably on the side for the entire hour. There seems to be no such worry in the Knesset. And not because of its surplus of seats.

On Tuesday when it was time for the Knesset's Q&A - this new event is supposed to improve the Knesset's ability to supervise the government and to attract the media to plenum discussions - only 20 MKs took the trouble to come. Expectations are one thing, and reality is another.

Those who did come were mostly from the ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties. The benches that are occupied by the large parties - Kadima, Likud and Labor - stood nearly empty.

"I learned a great deal from this hour," said Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik. "Perhaps we should have put an announcement in the media so people would listen to the debate."

Perhaps they should have put an announcement in the media so the MKs would come.

By law, a minister is obliged to reply to a question on the agenda within 21 days of its submission, and the Knesset Speaker is permitted to extend this by 21 days. Until now, the questions were generally answered after a long time, and that is why in many instances the MKs who asked the question do not bother to come to the plenum. The Q&A hour, it is hoped, will speed things up.

Like Question Time in the British Parliament, it is hoped, the give and take and verbal exchange between ministers and MKs will turn the Knesset's question time into something interesting and attractive to the public.

The meager attendance this week did not affect the tremendous enjoyment of Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, who volunteered to be the first minister on the dais to respond to questions. Sheetrit was enjoying himself so much, he agreed to answer more and more questions from the MKs.

He was having such a good time that he threw in stories that did not relate directly to the subject. He recalled, inter alia, how he had passed the law that limited the fees lawyers could ask for collecting mortgage debts and took pleasure recounting how, as justice minister, he had canceled double fines on traffic tickets.

The major headline Sheetrit provided during the question hour was that his ministry is busy working on a new version of the Citizenship Law to establish stringent conditions for attaining citizenship.

He hopes to submit it to the Knesset before the end of the year. His remarks came in response to a question from the head of the Justice for the Elderly faction, MK Moshe Sharoni (who had a bit of difficulty waking up to pose his question).

Sheetrit said it is currently too easy to get Israeli citizenship. "Here, whoever comes is welcomed. You are a citizen. This is a most serious phenomenon for Israel's identity and future," he said.

Sheetrit said his ministry held a seminar with experts from Europe on the subject of citizenship and subsequently the law being prepared "would state rules about who is permitted to become a citizen, who can be granted citizenship and who cannot."

'Tel Aviv's high rents'

A less important but no less interesting discussion developed on the subject of the prices of apartments in Tel Aviv. Itzik complained about the high rent her son was asked to pay in the big city. Sheetrit replied that he did not understand why they do not build towers with two-room apartments for students who instead are required "to pay astronomic sums for all kinds of hovels in Florentin and Zerubavel."

MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) answered him by saying that, to the best of her knowledge, it was actually cheap to live in Florentin and the Hatikva quarter. The head of the Meretz faction, MK Haim Oron, who was also present in the plenum, said that anyone who wants cheap housing is welcome to come to his kibbutz.

When the interior minister was asked by the head of the Balad faction, MK Jamal Zahalka, what has happened to his promise to set up a new Arab town, Sheetrit responded: "With God's help, I'll bring the proposal about the new Arab town this month to the cabinet." Sheetrit said the planning bureau "had already located the place for it."

When Zahalka asked him for details, Sheetrit refused to reveal where the place was - there is a plan for a new Arab town but its whereabouts are being kept under wraps.

MK Dov Chenin (Hadash) asked the minister how it was possible that Aryeh Bar, the director general of his ministry, had voted in favor of setting up the coal-powered electric station in Ashkelon while he, his minister, had formerly declared himself opposed to it. Sheetrit replied: "That's how things are in a democracy." To that the head of the Hadash faction, MK Mohammed Barakeh said: "You are enjoying the best of both worlds."

The ministers are expected to appear on the Knesset dais at question time once every six months.

In the four weeks remaining before the House adjourns, the following ministers will take their turn: Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, Finance Minister Roni Bar-On and Education Minister Yuli Tamir.

The hope is that, as time goes by, the hour of questions will bring new life an institution that many in the Israeli public think has become outdated.