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The chair in the Knesset once occupied by prime minister Ariel Sharon remained symbolically empty during Monday's swearing-in ceremony which marked the opening of the 17th Knesset. The gesture was a sign of respect for the man who was unquestionably the dominant force of the 16th Knesset.
"[But] the vacancy is so much bigger than that one chair," said one official, adding, "So many well-known, veteran MKs are not returning [to the House]. There is a question of how the new class of MKs will be guided."
The new Knesset indeed represents a changing of the guard, one which goes beyond Sharon's absence. No fewer than 41 MKs were sworn in for their first term, many of them from Kadima and the Pensioners Party, neither of which operated in the 16th Knesset.
Concern for how so many rookie MKs will "be guided," however, is misplaced if the model was to be the preceding Knesset, one which its speaker Reuven Rivlin called the "most vilified in the history of the state."
Indeed, it was encouraging to hear some of the freshman MKs speak of their "shaking knees" and the inspiration they felt as they contemplated their entry into the nexus of national government. It is hoped that their respect for the institution will carry over into its daily functions, making it a locus of decorum, leadership and better governance.
The most glaring need for improvement relates to the corrupt practices of which many MKs were accused - and some convicted - during the 16th Knesset. In this context the unanticipated rise of the Pensioners Party is less of a surprise, its support attributable in part to a protest against the perception of rot within parliament. A significant number of voters opted for a party whose candidates were largely untainted by previous exposure to politics.
The message: It should not be a herculean undertaking for our leaders to conduct themselves within the boundaries of the law and, as importantly, with a sensitivity to the ethical comportment which their high office and public consensus demand.
However, should they need a reminder of the consequences of falling short of these standards, the new crop of MKs need look no further than the plenum chairs once occupied by Omri Sharon and Nomi Blumenthal, both sentenced to prison for crimes involving political malfeasance.
But empty chairs in the 16th Knesset were also the result of other than criminal designs. Far too often, large numbers of our elected officials simply didn't bother to show up. Viewers who tuned in to TV broadcasts of plenum sessions could often have been forgiven for thinking the station had missed the session entirely with large swaths of empty seats the salient feature on their screens.
There are, of course, valid reasons for MKs to be absent, as when Knesset committee meetings conflict with parliamentary assemblies or when senior legislators are called upon to deal with emergencies. Perfect attendance is not demanded. But as with any employer, the public has a right to depend on the employees it "hires" in elections to show up for work as often as possible, keeping themselves informed and contributing to the best of their abilities.
The fresh Knesset is also an opportunity for a new opposition to make its best contribution. The formation of a shadow cabinet, in which opposition "ministers" would each be charged with closely following a government ministry's policies, would be beneficial to all. Shadow ministers, intimately familiar with the issues in their "portfolio," could critique and force the government to hone its plans, or they could provide viable alternatives. Such an approach would also give the opposition a recognizable framework and greater credibility, helping it to garner public support.
There is no doubt the public would also support an overall improvement in the quality of those who seek public office. To its credit, the Likud recently became the latest party to make selection of its Knesset list subject to a vote of all party members. Kadima is promising to do the same, and sensibly to restrict the right to such a vote to those who have been party members for at least 25 months.
Such requirements diminish candidates' potential to buy support within a relatively small central committee or through stacking membership lists. They are left with the alternative of impressing the voters with their knowledge and competence - the very qualities needed by those who fill our Knesset seats.