One month ago it was announced that Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked and Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin had approached Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein with a proposal for a package deal between the government and the Knesset that would include a drastic cut in the number of private members’ bills submitted in return for strengthening the parliamentary oversight tools available to the Knesset vis-à-vis the government.
Currently around 1,200 private members’ bills are submitted every year, of which only 20% reach preliminary reading and 5% enter the law book (about half the total legislation in Israel) and the government specializes in dodging any serious oversight.
Edelstein is reported to have reacted favorably. Leading Knesset members, both from the coalition and the opposition reacted rather hysterically. The gist of what they said was “we shall not allow the government to weaken the MKs.”
I find myself siding with Shaked and Levin in this case. These two have bees in their bonnets when it comes to institutional reforms – some highly political/ideological by nature, and others neutral.
The political/ideological ones – such as moves to change the make-up of the Supreme Court, in order to ensure that it will be more conservative (i.e. right-wing) – I oppose. Those that are designed to improve the functioning of the Knesset, I support, especially if they are proposed as a package deal between the government and the Knesset. I believe that a package deal is the only way serious, much-needed reforms can be adopted.
However, for a package deal to be formulated the proposal must be based on close government-Knesset cooperation, and its formulation must include a serious study of the desired reforms, and a clear formulation of both strategy and tactics.
Unfortunately, what we are seeing currently, in connection with the Shaked-Levin initiative (that has so far not been published as a bill or even a policy memorandum) is a lot of populistic rhetoric, highly selective reasoning and shaky facts.
While Shaked is primarily motivated by her desire to limit legislation in general (a republican approach, which she developed in an article in the new right-wing journal HaShiloah), and Edelstein is motivated by his sincere desire to improve the functioning of the Knesset and its public image, Levin has been involved in proposals for improving the Knesset’s oversight powers since he served as chairman of the House Committee and of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee in the course of the previous Knesset.
As of 2014 he had proposed various versions of a quid pro quo involving a cut in private legislation initiatives in return for improved parliamentary oversight.
The first attempt to formulate a package deal between the Knesset and the government occurred during the 17th Knesset, when then-government secretary Oved Yehezkel, and then-Knesset secretary general Eyal Yinon (today the legal adviser of the Knesset) initiated a round table involving ministers, MKs and senior officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Knesset, who met several times to discuss the issue.
In February 2009, Yehezkel and Yinon presented their recommendations to prime minister Ehud Olmert and Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik (both from Kadima). Their recommendations included a limitation in the number of private members’ bills and more serious treatment of them in the government, more cooperative treatment of regular government legislation by the Knesset, the limitation of the Economic Arrangements Law to the necessary minimum, follow up of the implementation of laws passed, ensuring the participation of representatives of the government invited to Knesset committee meetings, more serious treatment by the government of questions to ministers and motions for the agenda, examination of how to improve the procedures for approving the state budget and budgetary transfers after the budget is passed.
Several days after the recommendations were submitted, new elections were held and a new government headed by Binyamin Netanyahu was formed that showed no interest in the proposals.
The new initiative is much more modest in scope than the Yehezkel-Yinon proposals (with which Levin is familiar), and is limited to private members’ bills and increasing the parliamentary oversight role of the Knesset committees.
The reason for the fury of the MKs is not so clear, since there no one denies that reforms are needed. None of them even bothered to check the details with Shaked and Levin, or asked them and Edelstein to set up a joint Knesset-Government apparatus to examine the issue and come up with an agreed proposal – in the form of a bill and/or amendments to the Rules of Procedure.
The chairman of the House Committee, MK Yoav Kisch, called for an urgent meeting of his committee that was held on February 6 without any sort of preparation to express rejection of the initiative.
Kisch didn’t bother to mention that he and the chairperson of the Zionist Union parliamentary group, Merav Michaeli, have been discussing a similar initiative (according to Michaeli).
At a previous meeting of the House Committee held on December 6, which had dealt with the scandalous treatment of parliamentary questions by the government, Yariv Levin admitted that the situation was unacceptable, and explained his package deal approach to trying to resolve the various issues between the Knesset and the government. He complained that while he was finding support for his approach among the ministers (though not from all of them), the MKs were being uncooperative. The fact that Kisch did not bother to invite Levin to his “urgent meeting” corroborates the latter’s observation.
Unfortunately, Edelstein has remained publicly silent since his initial expression of support for the Shaked-Levin initiative. His apparent passivity is unfortunate. One would expect a speaker who truly cares about the Knesset’s work and image to actively try to turn the Shaked-Levin initiative into a joint government-Knesset project, and speak out against the negative approach of most of the MKs. But who knows, perhaps he is acting behind the scenes.
The danger is that the important initiative will simply be allowed to die once again.
Unfortunately, the prime minister is unlikely to join the supporters.
Improving the Knesset’s oversight powers over the government is the last thing Netanyahu wants at the moment.