Healing our ailing Knesset

Rather than serve as an example of tolerant inclusive dialogue, the Knesset has become a fountain of toxic verbal violence.

A woman votes at a Jerusalem polling station on March 2 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A woman votes at a Jerusalem polling station on March 2
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

On March 2, some 4.5 million Israeli citizens reluctantly went to the polls again, for the third time in 328 days. Previously, they voted in national elections on April 9 and September 17, 2019. The new 120-member Knesset will be Israel’s 23rd.
Last September, polling booths offered voters a bewildering tray of no fewer than 39 ballots; only 10 of the 39 political parties passed the minimum threshold of 3.25% of the total number of ballots in order to enter the Knesset. In March, 30 parties competed, including the Fair Trial party of Larissa Trimbobler-Amir, who called for a retrial for her husband Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, and the Pirate Party, whose chairman Noam Kuzar wore a tricorn hat like the one George Washington wore.
Why so many parties? It is a terrific way to get publicity for your cause, even though nearly all those 29 one-idea parties knew they could not possibly get the 145,000 ballots needed to enter the Knesset.
There have been efforts to limit the inflation in the parties running for election. The minimum threshold for entering the Knesset was raised from 1% of total ballots to 1.5% in 1992, then to 2% and finally today’s 3.25%. But there are still 30 ballot slips to choose from.
One national election every 109 days? That alone shows why Israeli democracy is ailing. But the ailments are far deeper. It is uniquely Israeli that while other nations suffer a steep decline in the democratic process – the US, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Russia and others – Israel suffers from excess democracy. Too many parties, too many draft laws, too many elections.
What can be done to heal the Knesset and repair Israel’s failing democracy?
I spoke with Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, a respected Knesset member from 2015 until 2017, and author of a detailed Neaman Institute report (together with Itamar Popliker) on how to reform the Knesset. Trajtenberg was the first head of the National Economic Council, and in 2011, headed a committee that vastly improved pre-school education in the wake of the Rothschild Boulevard social protests.
A recent public opinion poll asked respondents about corruption among Israel’s political leaders. Seventy-five percent answered it is “widespread” or “somewhat widespread.” Trajtenberg’s report shows a distressing decline in public trust in the Knesset. In 2012, half of respondents expressed trust in the Knesset; in 2018 that proportion was just over one-fourth. Why? Why have we citizens lost faith in our parliament? Simply because it is not doing its job. But why not?
The Israel Democracy Institute analyzed the efficacy of the 20th Knesset, sworn in on March 31, 2015, and dissolved on December 26, 2018. The main conclusion, as Shakespeare wrote in his play “Macbeth,” was, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” during those 1,366 days.
According to official Knesset data, 4,163 private bills were proposed in the 20th Knesset. Of those, only 209 (2.6%) became law. In contrast, the cabinet proposed 234 laws, of which 189 (81%) were passed into law.
“In no other democratic parliament does the number of private member bills even approach those seen in Israel’s Knesset,” the IDI report notes. The inflation in private bills has been extreme; from 1977-88, there were an average of 129 such bills annually, some 709 annually from 1988-1999, and from 1999 through 2019 – 1,220.
Some 5,756 parliamentary queries were brought up, but, notes the report, “The efficiency of this watchdog tool is doubtful because the period of time allowed for cabinet ministers to provide an answer to a query is lengthy.” The number of queries, the report concludes, is so vast “as to make it difficult to relate to them.” And finally, the opposition submitted 218 motions of no-confidence in the government. Every one failed. This is an extreme case of quantity (of parliamentary furor) over quality (impactful legislation).
An important branch of economic research focuses on “incentive compatibility” – that is, in a system, are the rewards that people receive consistent with the kind of behavior we desire? The Knesset is a prime example of incentives that encourage particularly bad, infantile, destructive behavior, aimed not at solving problems, but at gaining media attention.
Trajtenberg documents this clearly. His report notes three fundamental flaws in how the Knesset operates: Lack of effective debate, reliance on simple majority to pass laws (e.g. 15 for-12 against), and the inflation of private draft bills. For example, a key Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty passed 32 for-21 against, with only 44% of Knesset members participating.
What should be done?
First, Trajtenberg proposes to limit the vast powers of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. This committee brings government-backed bills to the Knesset, imposes “discipline” on coalition Knesset members (“vote yes or else”) – and gains almost automatic passage for its bills, with pointless debate. Why would Knesset members invest time and effort in studying and debating these bills if the result is set in concrete in advance?
If their energy and preparation in debating legislation is of no value, how then can Knesset members distinguish themselves and gain attention? By provocative behavior, outrageous statements, anything to draw media attention, built in part around hopeless private bills that stand no chance of passage. The system, at present, is perfectly designed to foster childish demonstrations and tantrums, and hence, to sharply diminish the public’s trust and esteem in the Knesset. Knesset members purposely make provocative speeches, like unruly teenagers, to gain media attention.
Second, Trajtenberg suggests distinguishing between crucial laws and less important ones. Initially, each draft law should be sorted into one of three categories by those who propose it: Basic Law, Central Law or Regular Law, according to its content and nature. This “sort” will be done based on whether the bill deals with fundamental social issues, the degree to which it impacts a wide range of people’s lives, the number of those the bill affects, and the length of time the bill is expected to be in effect. Each draft law will be assigned a numerical “power” score, with basic laws requiring a higher score than regular laws in order to pass.
The “power score” of a bill is defined as the number of MKs who vote in favor minus one-half the number of MKs who vote against.
Basic Laws need to score from 61 to 120, central laws from 31-60 and regular laws from 10-30. It makes sense that laws, which are, essentially, almost a part of Israel’s unwritten constitution should face a higher legislative hurdle than laws about, say, black and white goats. (See box on this page) 
For example, the power score of the above-mentioned Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty would be 31 (for) minus one-half times 21 (opposed), totaling 20.5. Under Trajtenberg’s proposal, that threshold is far too low for the bill to pass into law. For it to become law, fuller attendance of MKs would be required and a serious comprehensive debate must occur. Compare this with the televised debates in Britain’s House of Commons over Brexit – frustrating, near-deadlock, but in content, praiseworthy democracy at work, with almost all MKs present and active, speaking eloquently about their constituents’ positions.
According to The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index for 2019, Israel ranks only 28th in the world in its democracy score. Israel’s weak points are political participation and political culture.
Regarding participation: In the face of the circus that the Knesset currently comprises, what person in their right mind would want to be a part of it (except, perhaps, those who seek personal gain)? Hence, the perception of widespread corruption.
And regarding political culture: The level of bigotry and intolerance in Knesset sessions seems to have spread virally to public discourse, which has become far more toxic than in the past. Rather than serve as an example of tolerant inclusive dialogue, the Knesset has become a fountain of toxic verbal violence.
The overused quote by Albert Einstein, that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, applies to our democracy. It is not going to be helpful to keep holding elections, sending Knesset members to a broken Knesset legislative process. Let us focus not only on the symptoms – the inability to form stable governments – but on the root cause that generates destructive, bad behavior on the part of Knesset members and an abysmal failure to address the core issues that matter to the citizenry.
We must fix our ailing democracy, before, Heaven forbid, it expires.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com