Knesset building 390.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
On May 15, 2008, there was a celebration in the Knesset. In honor of Israel’s
Independence Day, US President George Bush paid a historic visit here and
addressed the plenum.
As Speaker, I accompanied the American leader
during his visit to the Knesset and I could not escape a sense of pride and
euphoria – not only because of the status of the important guest, but also – and
perhaps primarily – because of the respect he demonstrated for the Israeli
The president turned to the citizens of Israel in Hebrew
from the Knesset podium and greeted them with “Yom Atzma’ut Sameah!”
Independence Day”). This blessing symbolized above all the power and relevance
of the Knesset as Israel’s parliament.
That visit was an important
milestone in the path of strengthening the Knesset’s status in the eyes of the
Israeli public, and even in the eyes of the nations of the world.
my tenure as Speaker, I worked tirelessly to maintain a strong and relevant
legislature. The Knesset passed private members’ bills in opposition to
the government’s position; the annual Economic Arrangements Law was cut
drastically; I set the norm of a dress code for Knesset guests, and introduced
the employment of disabled workers in the Knesset.
More world leaders who
visited Israel asked to address the Knesset. It was clear to them that
this was the real gateway to the recognition of Israel’s democracy and the
platform to directly speaking to its citizens.
Unfortunately, I think the
status of the Knesset, as well as its strength and prestige in the eyes of the
public are now at an all-time low. In the 18th Knesset, the sensitive balance
between the legislative and executive branches has been violated.
nearly a third of elected representatives serve the executive branch as cabinet
ministers and deputy ministers, and therefore only a few Knesset members
participate in Knesset committees. This alarming fact has a far-reaching
impact on the functioning and power of the Knesset; the number of MKs engaged
with private members’ bills is low and they are weak.
Arrangements Law has returned to its historically inflated size and there is no
effective supervision of the government’s work. On the contrary, some Knesset
members serve as government assistants and promote controversial legislation
that harms individual rights.
These negative processes are diminishing
the image of the Knesset in the public eye. A clear majority of citizens do not
respect their elected officials and don’t consider them a real address for
raising their everyday needs to the public agenda.
Clear evidence of the
weakening of the Knesset as the major arena for opinions and ideas can be found
in the strengthening of non-parliamentary movements seeking to set the public
agenda, using the media and especially social media.
The social protest
last summer is a great example of this. The middle class went out to the streets
wanting to change the priorities in the country – without convening the Knesset
and without receiving a quick response to their demands.
There was much
criticism about the conduct of MKs in the Knesset and the heated exchanges among
them. There are many complaints in the 18th Knesset about such behavior, but
when it is unable to create checks and balances against the executive branch,
and in the absence of a clear plan to strengthen the legislature, update the
hearing procedures and improve its image – no wonder the deterioration
The situation upsets me. These days, when image is sometimes
more important than essence, I know that the positive activity of many MKs does
not receive worthy media attention. Many members of Knesset see their work as a
Despite everything, though, I’m optimistic. A strong
Israeli democracy cannot exist without a strong and worthy Knesset. As an
emissary of the public, and as someone who once led this great legislature, I
believe that we will return the Knesset to its proper status.
On the week
in which the Knesset celebrated its birthday (Tu Bishvat), I look anxiously at
its current state, and voice the hope that it will again be the glory of Israeli
democracy.The writer was the Speaker of the 17th Knesset, and is
currently the faction head of Kadima.