Livni Party faction meeting 370.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
In all likelihood, few of us realize that the Ministerial Committee on
Legislation exists, much less that it is extremely powerful and, most
significantly, that it operates in the dark, under conditions of near total
This week – at the 13-member committee’s first session
since the formation of the current government – Justice Minister Tzipi Livni
announced that she planned to lift the veil of secrecy from the proceedings of
the committee that she chairs. It is a laudable aim, though many have tried, and
Unbeknown to most Israelis, the inconspicuous and
uncelebrated Ministerial Committee on Legislation happens to be one of the most
powerful arms of the government.
It can kill or promote new laws. Every
bill passed by the Knesset in its first reading is submitted to the ministerial
committee. Should the committee decide to oppose said bill, it stands no chance
as the coalition’s majority is sure to vote it down.
Oddly for a
parliamentary democracy, though, we are unlikely to know why any bill was
rejected or boosted, who favored and opposed it and why. At best we get to glean
partial, often unreliable and tendentious information from leaks. Leakers
generally serve an agenda by opting to reveal some tidbits and withhold
But nothing better is available as the committee discussions are
not even documented in any sort of written protocol.
Moreover, there is
no official record of the voting so we have no verifiable data about how many
ministers supported or nixed a given item of legislation and who among them
Livni indeed vowed that her first objective would be to make
public by what majority any legislative initiative was backed or foiled and what
the position of each minister was regarding each bill.
We take it for
granted that not all high-level decisions can be open to comprehensive public
scrutiny and not all deliberations can be divulged in full. Foreign relations
issues and certainly matters of national security demand that some information
be classified. That is natural and broadly acknowledged.
But where is the
limit? Where does the pragmatic prerogative to debate and weigh sensitive issues
away from the limelight end and where does the people’s right to know take over?
Some argue that in certain forums there can be no automatic right to know.
Livni’s predecessor Yaakov Neeman, for instance, hotly opposed making committee
deliberations and considerations a matter of public record. As he sees it, there
is justification for unmonitored discourse.
Without it, the frank
exchange of views would be impeded.
Ministers, subjected to inappropriate
pressure by interested parties and opinion-molders, would be afraid to sound off
forthrightly and to hold their ground against populist fads if the discussion
were made public. There would be less serious assessment and attention paid to
long-term consequences and more posturing to score popularity points, Neeman
Neeman’s argument is not without merit. Essentially clandestine
committee operations, however, inevitably make it too easy to quash all sorts of
initiatives not to the government’s liking. Additionally, the coalition too may
be tempted to go the populist route, in which case its copouts would be shielded
by the committee’s business being conducted under wraps.
The support for
making the committee’s proceedings more transparent crosses all political
divides. MKs Yariv Levin (Likud) and Orit Struck (Bayit Yehudi) have introduced
a bill in that vein. The Knesset’s left wing has long clamored for
It is axiomatic that democracy demands transparency,
because without transparency there can be no accountability and without
accountability there can be no fairness.
Sunshine is the best
Transparent deliberations and votes mean that decisions are
open to critical review, significantly reducing the potential for foul play and
abuse of the system. When public affairs are conduced behind closed doors, the
citizenry’s power to impose its will and influence political moves between
elections is diminished. Freedom of information is a vital building block of a