Rearranging the Knesset

The Knesset's supremacy means that it has the authority to divest itself of the legislature's mantle and transfer it to the cabinet.

The declared purpose of the Economic Arrangements Bill, which the Knesset will debate today, is to repeal laws and regulations in order "to bring about economic growth while reducing socioeconomic gaps and develop outlying areas of the country." In reality, the bill misses its target, proving that truth has gone out of style in politics.

The Knesset's supremacy means that it has the authority to divest itself of the legislature's mantle and transfer it to the cabinet, which has donned it as if it were its own. Yet the hands raised in favor of approving most or all of the bill will be cutting off the parliamentary tree on which Knesset members sit so comfortably, even though a few reforms have been removed from the bill.

At the top of this tree, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who is charged with upholding the Knesset's honor, sits powerless. He has stressed that the bill reflects "the agenda of the bureaucrats, for whom the Knesset, and perhaps even democracy itself, are a nuisance," and that "a parliamentary regime cannot allow itself to void its foundations of all content." But the Knesset allows itself to do so.

The bill's hundreds of clauses, even after having been pruned due to pressure from various MKs, still constitute a parliamentary "Jungle Book." Via this bill, MKs are asked to grant Finance Ministry officials, who largely devised its provisions, legal authority to run the country on issues that for the most part bear no relationship to the need to meet budgetary goals and promote the government's economic policy.

The very fact that a single government bill contains both a reform of the Israel Lands Administration and a reform of the multichannel commercial television industry is brazen effrontery. And the fact that these reforms were ultimately removed and will be handled as ordinary legislation does not compensate for the damage done to the rules of the democratic game. What remains in the Arrangements Bill should not be discussed in one fell swoop. This includes changing the way national priority areas are defined; allowing new cellular telephone operators to enter the market; authorizing municipal inspectors to detain suspected criminals; abolishing the requirement to document interrogations, even in serious crime cases; and opening the legal market to foreign lawyers.

Among the many reforms that have no business in the Arrangements Bill, one that stands out is an amendment to the Israel Bar Association Law that would enable foreign attorneys and law firms to work in Israel.

This reform essentially reorganizes the entire framework of Israel's legal profession. It would authorize foreign lawyers to provide legal services in Israel in foreign and international law, enable Israeli lawyers to work in partnership with foreign law firms and allow foreign lawyers to open offices in Israel.

The proposal is extremely controversial in the legal community, mainly because some of Israel's 40,000 lawyers are already having trouble earning a living, and due to fear that foreign attorneys, being unfamiliar with local law, might get permission to substitute foreign laws for Israeli ones.

Last month, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by the Israel Bar Association, which opposes the proposal, on the grounds that the Knesset had yet to seriously discuss the issue. But the Knesset Constitution Committee's subsequent discussion of the reform does not solve the problem of an inappropriate legislative process being used to pass a bill that has nothing to do with budgetary goals, with only a rushed discussion of a matter that is anything but urgent.

The court rejected the petition on the grounds that it was "premature," as it was submitted before the bill passed. Thus the door to repetitioning the court should the bill pass has not been shut. But Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch's comments leave no serious hope that such a petition would succeed, despite her "questions" and conclusion that the reform ought to pass only "after a thorough discussion."

The court explained its refusal to intervene in the Arrangements Bill as stemming from "the Knesset's special status." This approach was formulated in a 2004 ruling in which it complained about the routine submission of arrangements bills, terming them a process that turns the Knesset into "an empty vessel."

But despite its words, the court did nothing. It merely paid lip service to the principles of democracy by saying that judicial intervention might be possible in the future "in rare and extreme cases."

This week, MKs will be asked to decide whether they truly represent their voters, or whether they are merely automatic voting machines. And the High Court will have to decide - if petitions are indeed filed after the bill passes - whether to do its job of imposing the rule of law on the legislature when faced with a law that "rearranges" the Knesset by depriving it of its proper role.