PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Back in 2011 I taught a course on the Knesset at the Jezreel Valley Academic College. Soon after the course began one of my students asked me: “After elections, why can’t the opposition simply let the government get on with it?” I explained to him that democracy does not end at the polling booth, and that after the voters have had their say, the opposition has an important job to do in keeping the government accountable.
I was reminded of this episode following the ruling of the High Court of Justice last week to the effect that the manner in which the government got the bill on third-apartment taxation approved by the Knesset last December, as part of the Economic Arrangements Law, was unworthy, and that the bill ought to be returned to the Knesset Finance Committee for reapproval – this time appropriately.
The government had brought the bill to the Knesset Finance Committee at the very last minute on the night of Thursday, December 15 (regular Knesset sessions are from Monday to Wednesday). After protests by the committee’s legal adviser (who had arrived with her newborn baby, cutting her maternity leave short), protests by the committee’s chairman, MK Moshe Gafni, the angry departure of the opposition MKs and a good deal of yelling by the MKs who remained failed to impress the government, the bill was approved, in a highly irregular procedure, for presentation to the plenum for second and third readings the following week. It should be recalled that several Likud MKs were bribed by the government with special coalition funds for their pet projects to ensure that they would vote for the budget and the Arrangements Law.
The week before the HCJ issued its ruling, the government once against played the same trick – this time in connection with the scandalous amendment of the Broadcasting Corporation Law (after the prime minister had failed to kill it altogether), which was again brought to a Knesset committee on a Thursday night for approval. The committee appointed to deal with the bill was not one of the Knesset’s permanent committees, but a special committee set up to deal with the abomination and headed by no other than coalition chairman David Bitan, whose task was to get the bill through, by hook or by crook.
In other words, the answer my former student would have received to his question from the government would have been: “You are absolutely right, and since the opposition doesn’t understand that its job is to shut up, we are justified in using every dirty trick in the book (and outside the book, if we can get away with it) to get our policies through.
This whole chain of events should serve as an additional warning light (of which there are unfortunately many flickering) to all those who value Israel’s democracy, which the current government seems willing to pour down the drain in the pursuit of its controversial goals.
There is no doubt that Israeli society today is more divided than ever before, and rather than try to bring various parts of society together the government keeps throwing fuel on the fire.
It is a historical fact that whenever the government is inclined to one of the ideological extremes – whether Right or Left – divisions in society are accentuated.
This is what happened in the case of the second Rabin government (which ended with Rabin’s assassination), and this is what is happening today.
The only reason Shamir’s last government, formed after the coalition government fell in March 1990, didn’t lead to the same result, even though it was the most extreme right-wing government Israel has ever had in terms of its make-up, was because Shamir was weak and didn’t try to impose coalition discipline. Furthermore, at that time there were still a large number of Likud liberals in the Knesset, who took advantage of the situation to pass some important constitutional reforms in cooperation with the opposition. Today Likud liberals are a very rare breed, in danger of extinction.
The current heavy handed policy of the government vis-à-vis the Knesset is supported by collusion between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon in an attempt to get each other’s hobby horses to the finishing line. Taxation on third apartments was Kahlon’s hobby horse, weakening the public broadcaster is Netanyahu’s.
The executor of these collusions is David Bitan, who aggressively applies sanctions against rebellious and over-independent MKs from his own party, and whose populist conduct has vulgarized Knesset proceedings to an unprecedented extent. For example, Bitan was recently recorded running around the plenum yelling at some MKs and throwing candy at others, as if the plenum were some sort of private event. I never believed I would miss former Likud coalition chairmen Ze’ev Elkin and Yariv Levin, who despite their extreme right-wing ideologies behave like gentlemen.
What all this indicates is that if there is still a majority in Israel which values Israel’s democracy and is concerned about the growing divides in Israeli society (I believe there is, but that it is rapidly diminishing), the leaders of the major parties should strive to avoid the establishment of exclusively right-wing or left-wing governments. What center-right or center-left governments ensure is a more stable parliamentary base, and the avoidance of more controversial and divisive legislation.
The legislative circus that we are currently experiencing would not occur if Israel had a government that represents a consensual, non-inflammatory and less populist approach. If....