Israel's Knesset building.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Knesset will be marking 70 years since its inaugural meeting today. As happens every year, its “birthday” falls on Tu B’Shvat and the celebrations will be combined with an open house featuring fresh fruit and flower planting, among other activities.
Beyond sending good wishes, a birthday is a good time to evaluate the past and consider the future.
In recent years, the Knesset has enjoyed low approval ratings from the public. According to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute conducted in 2018, barely over a quarter of Israelis (27%) trust the Knesset.
That’s not a number the legislature should be proud of.
And it’s no wonder. After years of corruption scandals, shouting, cursing, sexual harassment and MKs passing laws to give themselves greater benefits, the public just doesn’t trust that these people have their best interests at heart.
In the last Knesset alone, we saw several politicians in both the coalition and the opposition being investigated for alleged corruption, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An MK went to prison for aiding terrorists; two MKs resigned over sexual harassment allegations; and at least three others stayed in office even as accusations remained against them. MKs erupted into screaming matches and name-calling on a regular basis. And an MK vandalized a colleague’s car because she was parked in the wrong spot.
The endless antics may not all be criminal, but they are harmful to the Knesset’s image.
This is not just a matter of public relations; it’s about the strength of Israeli democracy. If the public does not trust that their institutions work properly, then they really won’t be able to function anymore.
At the same time, there is a lot of good that happens in the Knesset every day. Most MKs really do want to help people. Even though they are not directly accountable to constituents, all lawmakers’ contact information is publicly available on the Knesset website and most of them make an effort to meet with people and listen to their concerns. They receive countless messages from the public, which they turn into action – whether they’re motions to the agenda, parliamentary questions to ministers or even legislation.
Nearly every matter that comes up in the news reaches the Knesset in one way or another, an indication that our representatives have their fingers on the pulse of the public and make a serious effort to address its concerns.
The Israeli electoral system, and therefore the Knesset, also does a good job at representing the varied and disparate population groups of Israeli society. It’s true that having so many parties representing narrow interests is not the most stable way to run a government.
But on the positive side, there is an excellent level of representation of Israeli diversity – whether within the Jewish or Arab populations, religious or secular, central or periphery, and different levels of income. For example, in the last Knesset, we had a former hotel maid from Arad who pulled herself up to political success, and a millionaire hi-tech venture capitalist – each bringing his or her own perspective and talents.
Identity politics should not be the priority. Debating real ideologies and policies to determine the future of our country is far more important than where someone was 20 years ago or what kind of home our MKs were born into. But at the same time, we should not disregard the role diversity plays in creating a parliament which can properly deal with the challenges this country faces. That is something that should be celebrated.
Now, when we’re 78 days to the next election, it’s important to remember that the Knesset is what we make of it. Every four years or less, we Israeli citizens have the chance to decide who will represent us. Hopefully, the next Knesset will be populated by serious, intelligent people who faithfully represent the people who voted them into office without resorting to stunts to get attention.
If that happens, the Knesset will be able to meet its full potential as the center of Israeli democracy – and regain the public’s trust.
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