While the way laws pass is ostensibly transparent and votes in the plenum are open for all to see, many of the steps on the way to a bill’s third and final reading take place behind closed doors, or information on them is inaccessible.
Nearly every member of Knesset has experienced the following: The MK writes a bill that he or she thinks is necessary and in the public interest, checks with an adviser to make sure there aren’t any major legal issues with the bill and then submits it to the Knesset. Weeks later, it goes to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and is rejected, with no explanation.
Now the bill is buried, because the panel’s decision becomes the coalition’s official policy, and the MK can’t propose it again for months.
The Ministerial Committee, led by the justice minister, holds meetings behind closed doors every Sunday when the Knesset is active.
The only people in the meetings are ministers, their aides and representatives of ministries that are related to the bills in question. The MKs who submitted the bills cannot attend the meetings and present or explain the legislation.
At the end of the meeting a list of which bills passed and which were rejected is released, but not a list of how ministers voted, and no protocols.
That’s not to say no one finds out what happened in the meetings. Several ministers, including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, post their votes on Facebook, though they do not all do so consistently.
Aides in the meetings are usually happy to answer questions from reporters and MKs who are allied with their bosses, but there is no official account and those aides cannot help being biased in their retelling of the events.
MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) sought to change things and proposed a bill making the Ministerial Committee for Legislation’s meetings transparent and allowing MKs to present their bills.
“This is a basic thing, to know who voted for and who against. It should be obvious,” Horowitz told The Jerusalem Post. “We need to know what the ministers are saying, what their problem is with the bill. It shouldn’t be a secret. This change should have been made long ago.”
Horowitz proposed his bill in 2013 and kept it on hold until February of this year.
At the time, Livni said that she agreed that the panel needs to be transparent and that she would bring her own proposal to it.
Most ministers agreed, with the exception of Finance Minister Yair Lapid and two of Yisrael Beytenu’s three ministers, Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver and Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir.
Yet, in early February, Livni’s office charged that cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit or his legal adviser was blocking the proposals.
Horowitz, however, said he doesn’t buy Livni’s explanation that it’s the Prime Minister’s Office’s fault that the panel still is not transparent.
“She’s justice minister and she has influence when she wants to [use it]. I don’t think she was very invested in the issue,” he said.
Livni’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comments or questions as to whether she is continuing to push for transparency.
As for Lapid’s opposition to transparency in the Ministerial Committee, his spokeswoman said in February: “We do not reveal the minister’s votes in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation intentionally. We think that making ministers’ votes in the committee public will cause the discussions to become populistic.”
“Our positions, which are expressed in many avenues, are made clear even without publicizing the protocols or votes, which find their way into the press anyway,” the spokeswoman added.
MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) said that though he originally did not understand it he now finds his party leader’s line of reasoning compelling.
“It’s critical that the ministerial committee hold a healthy debate where people can give their opinion without trying to score political points. Then, at the end, when a decision is made, the whole coalition can rally behind it,” he said.
“It’s not that Yesh Atid is trying to hide something or doesn’t want transparency.
The feeling is that the system won’t work as well if its changed,” he added.
The Yesh Atid MK posited that if the panel’s protocols are released, ministers will be questioned as to how they could vote with the coalition in the plenum when they argued the opposite in the Ministerial Committee.
“That’s something I’ve experienced myself,” he said.
According to Lipman, “if everyone knows every word [of the committee meeting], people will be posturing instead of holding a real discussion. We see that in the Knesset all the time.”
Horowitz, however, said that Lapid’s “shameful” logic underestimates the ministers.
“If transparency means there’ll be populism, then Lapid doesn’t respect the ministers and thinks they just vote according to what people say. Maybe the whole Knesset should be closed [to the public], then?” Horowitz quipped.
According to Horowitz, the opposite of Lapid’s assertion is true, and “transparency makes people behave more professionally.
When things are closed there are more shady deals and outside pressures.
“Lack of transparency leaves an opening for all kinds of corruption,” the Meretz MK said.
Meanwhile, Boaz Rakuch of The Social Guard, an NGO monitoring the Knesset’s activities on socioeconomic issues, is working with other NGOs, including the Movement for Freedom of Information and the Public Knowledge Workshop, to campaign for the panel’s transparency.
“The Ministerial Committee turns the Knesset into a rubber stamp. It’s slowly making the Knesset irrelevant,” Rakuch said, referring to the discipline following the committee’s votes, which requires coalition MKs to vote according to the ministers’ decision.
“This farce can’t continue,” he said.
Bayit Yehudi faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked took the middle ground on the issue, though her party’s ministers voted in favor of transparency.
“I’m more in favor than against. People don’t realize it’s the central juncture determining whether laws pass or not,” she said.
“Since it’s so central, we voted in favor of it being transparent.”
Still, Shaked said: “I understand people like the prime minister who oppose it because they think it’ll disrupt the committee’s work.
“It’s popular to say ‘I want transparency,’ but things are more complex than that,” she concluded.