After a bill is authorized by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation – behind closed doors and with no public protocol – and passes a preliminary (for private member bills) and first reading in the plenum, the real work begins in the committees.
The Knesset committees are where bills are shaped and changed into the form that is brought to the plenum for a final vote, which may be drastically different from their original version.
If someone is following a specific bill on an issue that doesn’t have a high enough profile to necessarily make it into the newspapers every step of the legislative process, he or she may find it difficult, or in some cases impossible, to independently find out who voted for or against the latest version.
Several organizations track the Knesset’s activities on specific issues, sending volunteers to sit in committee meetings and report what happened in them, but even they have trouble finding the exact information.
Boaz Rakocz, CEO of The Social Guard, was an activist in the 2011 social protests, camping out in a tent in Tel Aviv’s Medina Square. When the demonstrations ended, Rakocz searched for a way to channel their energy into a more pragmatic goal. He established The Social Guard, which reports on the Knesset’s activities on socioeconomic issues, such as housing, welfare, education and workers’ rights.
Jewish Pluralism Watch is an organization founded by the Masorti Movement (Conservative Judaism in Israel) to follow issues of religion and state. The NGO puts information about the MKs’ votes and proposals in an easy-to-understand online database, and, like The Social Guard, sends observers to relevant committee meetings. Jewish Pluralism Watch also has educational programming and aims to be a resource for MKs seeking information on the topic.
Both The Social Guard and Jewish Pluralism Watch seek to resolve what they see as an issue of transparency in the Knesset’s committees by having observers in meetings.
When The Social Guard was founded, Rakocz approached then-Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, who told the Knesset Guard to allow the NGO’s volunteers into the House to be observers in committee meetings.
The Social Guard has experts translate bills from legalese to more informal language so that the average citizen – including the volunteer observers – can understand them. There are no preconditions for becoming an observer, and the group of volunteers is of a wide range of ages – in fact, at first, they were mostly young social protesters and retirees – and backgrounds, including secular, national-religious and haredi Jews as well as Arabs and people who identify as both politically right-wing and left-wing.
“Today, citizen observers have become an integral part of the view in the Knesset. This is a great achievement for us,” Rakocz said. “In recent years, there is less and less [press] coverage of the Knesset. We entered that vacuum. While one newspaper has one parliamentary reporter, we have 12 observers at the same time and aim to be a reliable source.”
Adi Stein, director of Jewish Pluralism Watch, explained that observers are necessary because some things don’t appear in committees’ protocols.
“If there’s a vote in a committee meeting, the details aren’t publicized, only that three voted in favor and five against, but not who voted which way,” she said.
Jeremy Saltan, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett’s English social media manager and founder of the “Knesset Jeremy” blog, which tracked the 18th Knesset and some of the current 19th Knesset’s activities, also criticized the way the Knesset presents information about committee meetings, pointing out that some committees are months behind in posting protocols, and even when they are online, they do not specify how each lawmaker voted.
“If I want to hold an MK accountable, it is difficult, because I don’t know how he or she voted [in committees].
Transparency is about the voting, too, not just about the speeches,” he said. “Most [committee] votes are listed as unanimous – even if only the chairman was present.”
Knesset spokesman Yotam Yakir responded to the claims: “The Knesset is open to the public, including social organizations, more than ever before.
There are various possibilities of transparency and accessibility in the Knesset. The Knesset website is varied and rich, and has not only full parliamentary information but online broadcasts of all committee meetings without exception. Often several meetings are broadcast on the site simultaneously. Social organizations reporting on the Knesset’s activities are invited to use the material on the site and the broadcasts at any time.”
A senior Knesset source explained that it’s difficult to put the results of committee votes online because they are done by raised hand and are not computerized like plenum votes.
However, as Rakocz pointed out, this allows for political maneuvering in the committee, which is very hard to track, like last-minute votes and coalition MKs avoiding uncomfortable votes by coordinating with opposition MKs to be absent at the same time as them.
The Social Guard sought a temporary solution to at least part of the problem and asked committee chairmen to say aloud, for the protocol, who voted which way. Six of them agreed and Rakocz hopes they will implement the practice in May, when the Knesset returns from its Passover recess.
“Why should I have to convince chairmen to do something so elementary?” Rakocz asked, referring to the other 11 who refused. “Citizens should be able to see if MKs voted the way they promised and know that they don’t say one thing and vote the other way.”
Stein also found some lawmakers to be unwilling to adopt initiatives to increase transparency.
Another way Jewish Pluralism Watch sought to inform the public was by sending a questionnaire to MKs about their views on religion and state, but it was ignored by many.
Stein said the practice of sending questionnaires is widely accepted in democracies around the world, but MKs aren’t interested.
“They understand that if they say something to us and then vote differently, they’ll have a problem, so they don’t want to cooperate,” Stein said, adding that some parties were instructed by their leaders not to speak to the NGO at all. “This was an attempt of ours to increase transparency to which MKs didn’t agree.”
Stein called for MKs to personally adopt the mission of transparency and share information with the public.
MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) agreed that responsiveness is a serious problem in the Knesset, recounting that before he became a lawmaker, it would take months for him to get answers to emails sent to MKs.
“In high school, I was an intern in [the US] Congress and I helped answer letters. That was part of the culture. Every piece of mail that came in was answered. When I came into office, I told my staff that we need to answer everything and that’s a priority of mine,” Lipman said.
Still, the Yesh Atid MK found himself woefully unequipped for the amount of letters pouring in, though he still makes sure to answer them all.
“Every MK only has two staff members. When I visited Congress a few months ago, I found out each [member] has a staff of 16-18. Granted, they have constituents, but I calculated that each of my aides works the equivalent of 10 full-time jobs [in the US],” he explained.
Lipman blamed the lack of responsiveness by most MKs on the fact that they don’t have constituents, which means they don’t feel as accountable to voters.
Rakocz suggested that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein host a roundtable with MKs and representatives of civil society to discuss the issue of transparency.
“The minute accountability and transparency become part of the culture and transparent conduct is regulated in the Knesset’s rules, the situation will be entirely different,” Rakocz said.
Saltan also pointed to the issue as a problem in the political culture, saying “transparency is essential for holding our elected officials accountable, which is the key element of true representation.”