Abdication of responsibility

It's become a national political trait, especially in the Knesset.

November 1, 2006 21:05
4 minute read.
knesset 88

knesset 88. (photo credit: )


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Who runs this country, anyway? The question was prompted by a report in Monday's Haaretz claiming that "several" MKs had lambasted Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz for not issuing a clear ruling on whether President Moshe Katsav should step down because of the investigation against him. "Mazuz wants us to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for him instead of making a courageous move," said one, in what Haaretz's reporter claimed was a typical response. This reaction is astonishing first of all because by law, the attorney-general has no authority whatsoever over the president - whereas the Knesset does: It can oust him. This, according to Justice Ministry officials, is precisely why Mazuz was reluctant to weigh in on this question: He (correctly) considers it improper to issue opinions on issues outside his jurisdiction. He therefore refused to do so until ordered by the High Court of Justice, and even then, he tried to word his opinion cautiously: Katsav should "consider" suspending himself; the Knesset should "consider" ousting the president if Katsav declines to leave voluntarily. But the MKs' reaction is particularly astonishing because the Knesset - not the attorney-general - is supposedly the country's sovereign authority. That is the nature of a parliamentary regime: Sovereignty resides in the parliament. In other words, ultimate responsibility for decision-making is supposed to rest with our MKs, not the attorney-general. Yet the MKs interviewed by Haaretz evidently do not want this responsibility. They would rather delegate it to the attorney-general: Let him make a clear decision on whether Katsav should be ousted, and the MKs can then obediently do his will, free of the unpleasant need to decide for themselves. THIS SAME desire to abdicate responsibility was evident in another Haaretz report a day earlier, about a bill to create a disciplinary court for elected officials. Under the bill, a disciplinary court consisting of a judge, a former MK and a professor would be set up to try cases involving ethical violations by ministers and MKs that do not warrant criminal prosecution. The court would be entitled to impose punishments such as reprimands, fines, suspensions or even dismissals of MKs and ministers, including the premier. The bill, submitted by Meretz, has garnered co-sponsors from across the political spectrum: Kadima, Labor, Likud, National Union-National Religious Party and Hadash. The Justice Ministry also supports it. Since the Ministerial Legislation Committee rejected it on Sunday, it will not receive government support, and is therefore unlikely to become law anytime soon. But the very fact that it has attracted such broad backing is noteworthy - because in fact, a mechanism for punishing elected officials' ethics violations already exists: the Knesset Ethics Committee. Granted, the penalties at the committee's disposal are considerably less severe than those envisioned for the proposed disciplinary court. But legislation expanding its powers could easily be passed. And since most ministers are MKs, they, too, are within the committee's jurisdiction. MKs also have another tool for addressing ethics violations by ministers: parliamentary pressure. Supervising the executive is, after all, theoretically one of the legislature's chief functions, and the house has many ways of pressuring the government into dismissing or downgrading a minister. Just consider Shas's success in pressuring Yitzhak Rabin's government to dismiss Shulamit Aloni as education minister - and that was pressure from a single party, rather than a broad-based demand. Moreover, since MKs must approve ministerial appointments, they could easily refuse to approve the appointment of anyone who committed ethics violations in the past. They even have the power, via a no-confidence motion, to replace the prime minister with someone else, from the same or a different party. However, either of these mechanisms - the Ethics Committee or parliamentary pressure - would require MKs to actually make a decision and then take real action to implement it. Apparently, many consider it easier to abdicate this responsibility to a disciplinary court. MKs have been abdicating their substantive decision-making authorities for years: It is the High Court, rather than our elected representatives, that is determining the route of the separation fence, which may well delineate Israel's future borders; dictating immigration and citizenship policy (both by defining who is a Jew, and thereby entitled to automatic citizenship, and via cases dealing with naturalization); setting budgetary priorities (it has, for instance, asserted the right to set a minimum level for government welfare payments and to expand the list of drugs covered by the national health insurance plan); governing sensitive family matters (from recognizing gay couples to criminalizing spanking); and even dictating military tactics in wartime (with regard to both specific operations and general policies, such as targeted killings of terrorists). In some cases, such as the "who is a Jew" issue, the court stepped in after the Knesset refused for years to resolve a genuine ambiguity in the law. In others, it unabashedly overturned Knesset policy. But the Knesset's reaction has been the same either way: It has meekly accepted the court's dictates, evidently content to allow someone else to assume responsibility for making hard decisions. Until recently, however, it ferociously protected its authority over its own members. Now, many MKs appear willing to abandon even that: Let the attorney-general decide whether to oust the president; let a disciplinary court decide whether and how to punish MKs' ethical violations. ALL OF which begs an obvious question: If our MKs have abdicated all decision-making responsibilities, what do we need a Knesset for? We might just as well save the money we spend on it (NIS 435 million this year alone) and turn the building into a museum - a memorial of the time when Israel had a functioning democratic government. But for anyone who dislikes this idea, only one alternative seems feasible: mobilizing massive public pressure for changing the electoral system to make MKs directly elected, and therefore directly accountable to voters instead of to party institutions. That would enable us to throw out MKs who refuse to do the job we pay them for - making decisions - and to keep doing so until they finally get the message.

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