Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin has seen a few Knesset sessions open in his more than 20 years as a legislator, but this October, the veteran Likud MK is preparing for a real struggle.
With diplomatic issues looming in the foreground, Rivlin is ready for a fight on an entirely different – but not entirely unrelated – battleground. He is planning to take on the government to maintain the Knesset’s relevance as an independent authority, and promises to hit it at its weak point: If the government does not drastically change the format of the economic arrangements bill, he will not allow it to be submitted to the Knesset for a vote.
“Beyond the diplomatic issues, we see a serious struggle between the
executive authority and the Knesset, a struggle that is expressed
through the budget, the way that the government deals with challenges
within the coalition and especially with the handicap that is the need
to get the coalition members back in line for every vote,” Rivlin said.
The government has already approved the biennial budget for 2011-2012,
and it is now up to the Knesset to pass the budget, together with the
now-traditional economic arrangements bill that is tied to it. Since a
vote on the budget is considered to be a coalition test and any failure
to pass it is considered a no-confidence vote, coalition partners often
use the threat of opposing the budget to gain policy or budgetary
Although earlier this week, Rivlin said that he did not oppose
continuing what he emphasized was an “experiment” in passing a biennial
budget, he told The Jerusalem Post that it is at its root a battle in
the war over the role of the Knesset. “The government has tried to
bypass the Knesset with a biennial budget and the economic arrangements
bill,” complained Rivlin.
“The government uses the economic arrangements bill to bypass the
Knesset by including in it everything the government wants, even if it
has nothing to do with the budget.
“For instance, it is trying to bring back Wisconsin Plan in the bill,
despite the fact that it was struck down by the Knesset, with the
backing of MKs from the major coalition parties. Beyond that, it has
also included clauses giving more authority to police, decreasing the
number of judges sitting on an appeal and not obligating the government
to advertise tenders in newspapers.
“These kinds of things make the Knesset redundant.
The Knesset can just meet every two years to pass the budget and an
economic arrangements bill that has everything the government wants, a
collection of laws that otherwise have no bearing on each other.”
“This makes sense financially because the Knesset costs NIS 500 million
every year to operate, and so if we just had elections every four years
and voted on a four-year budget and economic arrangements bill, we could
save NIS 2 billion,” offered Rivlin, with a pinch of the
tongue-in-cheek sarcasm for which he is known in the Knesset.
According to Rivlin, he initially agreed to extend the biennial budget
after the “OECD said it was an interesting experiment” and he agreed
with the Treasury that it needed another two years to see if it was an
effective governmental tool. “I agreed to extend the experiment in part
to see if it was effective for the economy. The finance minister [Yuval
Steinitz] asked for my moral support, and I agreed on condition that the
economic arrangements bill would not include non-budgetary clauses.”
That condition, Rivlin said, was quickly violated.
“They lied to themselves, because no one can get away with lying to me. I
will file the budget, but I won’t put the economic arrangements bill on
the Knesset’s agenda until they give us a bill that does not bypass the
Knesset. I will not allow that to happen,” he promised.
“I am not intervening in fiscal, monetary or economic policy,” he added,
explaining that the contents of the bill are anything but. “The
government’s expectation that we pass the bill in its entirety denies
the ability of each MK to vote according to his conscience. I cannot
allow a situation in which I am submitted a compendium of 100 laws, in
which I agree with 80, and then am forced to decide whether I approve
the 100 in spite of the 20, or reject all 100 because of the 20.”
THE ECONOMIC arrangements bill is the freshest bee in Rivlin’s bonnet,
but it is not the only one. He is also wary of a bill filed by MK Ophir
Akunis (Likud), seen as one of the MKs closest to Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu, that would require a national referendum – but not a
Knesset vote – in the case of any final status agreement with the
Palestinians. The bill, hinted Rivlin, was coordinated from its earliest
days with the prime minister – a fact that does not deter him from
expressing his deep opposition to the initiative.
“Israel holds a referendum every four years, when it elects its representatives to the Knesset,” he said.
“When a government changes its opinion from what it presented to the
public, the Knesset can decide whether or not to approve it, but making a
referendum instead of the Knesset bypasses the Knesset. It’s like
saying [to the Knesset] who are you to decide.”
Rivlin does not deny the utility of a referendum as an additional
possibility, noting that “there are countries that require a referendum
for key issues, but referendum must be legislated without regard to
issues, not as a pressure tactic. A referendum can be done through clear
rules that are outlined in a constitution, after answers are reached to
questions, including who funds a referendum and who is responsible for
advertising the two positions.”
With three days left before the opening of the winter session, Rivlin’s
dance card for parliamentary fights appears to be quickly filling up –
even before taking into consideration questions of peace talks and
building in the settlements. And when the man with the speaker’s gavel
is ready for a fight, Knesset observers are guaranteed anything but a
boring – albeit long – session.