It didn’t bring down the government, but the battle over Ulpana certainly tested
it. The prime minister faced a revolt from his own party. Ministers were
threatened with termination.
And, as the residents of Ulpana have not yet
agreed to leave voluntarily, it’s possible that the drama isn’t over.
was a saga in which no less than two branches of government had determinative
roles. The Supreme Court took up the petition to remove the buildings in the
first place. The government responded by adopting a blanket policy of removing
buildings built on private property.
The court took the next step in
setting a deadline for the removal. Soon, the government will execute the order,
destroying the five apartment buildings and evicting the 30 families who call
the buildings home.
One branch of government, however, was conspicuously
silent: the Knesset. As the Knesset is the only publicly-elected branch of
Israeli government, that silence portends poorly for Israel’s
The Knesset’s true role in the drama was the site of battle.
It was there that two bills were proposed for a “regulation” or “arrangement”
law, which would have reversed the government’s policy, caused the Supreme Court
to reopen the case and perhaps save the homes. Under the proposed law, the
actual owner of a property like the disputed plots in Ulpana, would be given
compensation in the form of money or alternative land instead of retrieving the
property itself. Both proposals had problems, but after the court refused to
reopen the case, they were the only hope of saving the neighborhood and a large
portion of the Knesset had voiced support for them.
But that support did
not translate into Knesset action. First, the argument that the law meant
overturning a Supreme Court decision and would harm Israel’s democracy softened
support by painting those who supported the law as antidemocratic.
a day before the vote, the Prime Minister ordered coalition discipline and
threatened to fire ministers who voted in favor of the law—even in its
preliminary reading. With a coalition of 94 Members of Knesset, 36 of whom are
ministers and deputy ministers, this was enough to turn what might have been a
majority in favor of the law into a majority against. The final tally was 22 in
favor and 69 against. The rest, including many of the law’s initial supporters,
absented themselves from the vote. Those who voted against comprised not only
leftist members of the Coalition (e.g., Independence, Kadima) and the
Opposition, but even several of the law’s sponsors, not to mention initial
NOT THAT there is anything new about the methods used to
torpedo the bills. Coalition discipline has long been used by prime ministers to
ensure their agendas are followed. Ariel Sharon fired ministers to ensure
passage of his disengagement plan in the cabinet and the Supreme Court upheld
the practice. And claiming (usually against the Right) that a proposal (lately
ones affecting the judiciary) threatens Israeli democracy has long been a method
of silencing opponents.
What’s troubling is that the success of these
tactics demonstrates how the Knesset cannot, in practice, act in opposition to
the government or the judiciary. Far from being the supreme branch of Israeli
government as it should be in a democratic- parliamentary system, the Knesset is
therefore the weakest.
This weakness stems in large part from the nature
of Israeli government: the executive branch requires a coalition of a majority
of the Knesset, so any bill which threatens coalition stability becomes
artificially controversial; as the coalition comprises a majority of the
Knesset, the government can use that majority to control the Knesset; and
because MKs are not directly elected by the people, they are beholden to their
party and its leaders, who often form the government.
solution to Israel’s constitutional woes is raising the threshold for a party to
enter the Knesset. While this might stabilize coalitions by lowering the number
of parties needed to form one, it won’t strengthen the Knesset. To the extent
that it would succeed in stabilizing a government, it would shift the balance of
power further away from the Knesset. The alternative, albeit more sweeping
solution of district-based elections, would also cut out minority parties, but
it would also strengthen the legislature vis-à-vis the government, by tethering
legislators to the people they represent instead of the parties which comprise
An additional remedy would be adopting an
“incompatibility” rule, present in several Western democracies, by which
ministers relinquish their seats in the parliament, at least for the duration of
their ministerial tenure. This would further disentangle the government and
legislature and help ensure that Knesset members’ priorities lie with their
legislative roles and not the government.
Whether the “arrangement law”
would have made good policy or not, the spectacle of Knesset members
flip-flopping to protect their jobs and of the Knesset failing to pass
legislation that seemingly had widespread support only days before surely eroded
public faith in Israel’s democracy.
For our government to maintain the
public’s trust, the branch which represents the public needs to be independent
and strong. Adopting radical changes like district elections and the
incompatibility rule are necessary to make that happen.The Writer is the
executive director of Likud Anglos and an attorney admitted to practice law in
New York and Israel.