In the course of his short visit to Israel last week British Prime Minister David Cameron learned a new word – balagan – which stands for a chaotic or confused situation.
He was informed that it is a Hebrew term, but in fact its origin is Persian, whence it was adopted into Turkish, Russian and other Slavic languages before entering the Hebrew dictionary. In other words, neither the term, nor the situation it describes is necessarily typical of Israel, or its parliament, which unlike Netanyahu’s slip of the tongue last Wednesday, is not only a “Jewish parliament.”
In fact, last week’s events in the Knesset, though undoubtedly divergent, took place in a relatively civilized manner, considering the very serious and frustrating reality they reflected. The business of the Knesset was not disrupted, no one was really hurt, either physically or metaphorically, and the public was left with a lot to think about, beyond the irrelevant question of whether opposition leader Isaac Herzog acted wisely and responsibly.
First of all, about the balagan during Cameron’s Knesset visit last Wednesday. Cameron alluded to prime minister’s question time in the House of Commons, which takes place on Wednesdays, from 12:00 to 12:30, and which is considered “the best show in town” because of its theatrical/ceremonial form, and much less for its actual content.
In fact, I am sure that Cameron learned a good deal more about Israel and its problems during his few hours in the Knesset than in all his years in politics. He also learned that a parliament might be unruly and vibrant, without deteriorating into total chaos, as constantly occurs in India, both in the Sansad (parliament) in New Delhi, and in the Indian state legislatures, where the parliamentary business is constantly disrupted by opposition parties, to the point of halting altogether for months on end.
But back to the Knesset. It is true that the Knesset’s record in recent months with regard to the reception of foreign visitors is nothing to write home about. However, while the speech of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was interrupted by Arab MKs, who objected to what they regarded as its excessively pro-Israel content, and the speech of President of the European Parliament Martin Schultz was interrupted by the members of Bayit Yehudi, who protested against what they regard as the anti-Israel positions adopted by the European parliament, Cameron’s speech was interrupted by nothing more than applause.
What was divergent was that during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s welcoming speech all the MKs from the Arab parties left the plenum, while the Meretz MKs continuously heckled. In addition, opposition leader Herzog, while welcoming Cameron in extremely warm and friendly terms, also used the occasion to attack the government for its heavy-handed tactics in applying article 98 of the Knesset Rules of Procedures – which states that “In a debate on the State Budget Law, and in other exceptional cases, the House Committee in entitled to fix special debate procedures, including the fixing of a framework for the debate, and length of speeches” – to steamroll three major pieces of controversial legislation through the Knesset, and which according to him reflects weakness and not strength.
The steamrolling by the government of three controversial laws was, in fact, the real parliamentary story last week. Let me begin by saying that despite the very different background, the British government is not averse to steamrolling legislation through parliament (for example, on January 13, 2012, The Daily Mirror carried an item titled, “The Tories are preparing to use historic laws to steamroll its controversial welfare reforms through Parliament”), so that Cameron was probably not really shocked by what the Israeli government did, but rather by the opposition’s reaction.
What the government did was to take three separate, controversial bills – the governability bill, the “equal burden” bill, and Basic Law: Referendum – each of which, in turn, is considered important from an electoral point of view to Yisrael Beytenu, Yesh Atid, and Bayit Yehudi, and brought them together as a single package deal, for which all coalition MKs were forced to vote under strict coalition discipline.
Again, this practice is not unique to Israel. In the US, many Omnibus Bills (bills that encompass numerous unrelated subjects) are put together as package deals, though in the American case the package deals are concocted by Congress and the president together, so that each gets something it wants, by approving provisions it is opposed to, without serious debate taking place.
There was, in fact, no other way for the government to get this legislation through. but it is equally true that none of it will lead to anything more than cosmetic changes. In other words – much ado about nothing.
The limitation of the number of ministers to 18, making the passage of motions of no-confidence in the government even more difficult than it used to be, and setting the qualifying threshold at 3.25 percent, will lead to a saving of money on superfluous ministries, ministers and deputy ministers, to making available for parliamentary work several MKs, who were previously active in the executive branch, and to a smaller number of lists running in elections.
However, the incoherence of our government will remain as is, only with fewer ministers involved; motions of no-confidence will not disappear, since they are not really designed to bring down the government (that happened only once – in 1990), but as a means to protest against the government’s policy; and though the number of parliamentary groups might fall, the number of parties involved will remain the same through the creation of unnatural alignments (Italy is an example of this).
As to the equal burden law, everyone knows that it is a fiction, and that the burden of service and contribution to the state will remain unequal, for the simple reason that no one is eager to impose equality in practice.
Finally, on the referendum issue, the legal situation hasn’t really changed. What has happened is that an ordinary law, which makes mandatory the holding of a referendum every time the government signs an agreement involving the forgoing of territory where the Israeli law currently applied, unless it is approved by at least 80 MKs in the Knesset, has been replaced by a Basic Law. Either way the law is simply another attempt to add a nail to the coffin of the dying Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process.
So if the new legislation is so insignificant, why did the opposition bother to boycott the rushed debates and voting in their second and third reading? There were at least two good reasons.
Since it was clear that no matter what it did the laws would be approved, and that in any case the opposition would not be allowed to express its various reservations to the laws effectively, its decision to stay away was a means of protest, which gained more headlines than had the opposition MKs taken part in the farce.
Secondly, though it is an open question whether Herzog really has a chance of replacing Netanyahu, it was certainly refreshing to see the opposition parties – haredi, Arab and left-wing Zionist – each of which usually pulls the legislative rope in a different direction, trying hard to find issues that unite them.
The most obvious common denominator is the total disdain felt toward the government, but one should not belittle the importance of the fact that all of these parties have social agendas, and reject the neo-liberalism practiced by the current coalition. If this effort actually leads to some constructive dialogues on the various issues on the Israeli agenda – dayenu.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.