THINK ABOUT IT: The government is seeking to bypass the Knesset and other gatekeepers

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August 16, 2015 22:02
The Knesset

The Knesset. (photo credit: KNESSET SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)

 
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Since 1985, every annual or biennial state budget in Israel has been accompanied by what is known as an “Economic Arrangements Law.”

The name of a similar law in Canada – “the Budget Implementation Act,” and of a similar law that existed in Spain until 2004 – “the Accompanying Law” – explain much more accurately what this law is designed to achieve.

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The official justification for such laws is that a budget, which involves various economic and structural reforms, frequently necessitates the amendment of numerous existing laws, and that consequently it is necessary to introduce these amendments simultaneously with the budget, because otherwise various sections of the budget are liable to be unimplementable.

Not surprisingly, in most countries that have such laws, they were first introduced in a time of economic crisis, when it was necessary to pass far-reaching reforms in a very short time. In Israel the Arrangements Law was first introduced 30 years ago, when the Israel economy was suffering from hyperinflation, and a very broad national unity government was formed, inter alia in order to deal effectively with the crisis. Since then we seem to be stuck with this law, despite serious criticism against it.

There are several problems that such laws raise in their enactment stage. In the first place they are invariably attached to the budget law itself, and must be approved simultaneously with it. Since the approval of the budget, unlike other types of legislation, is squeezed into a very limited time frame, this means that the approval of the accompanying legislation is forced into the same time frame, which doesn’t leave members of parliament sufficient time to deal seriously with all its details.

Secondly, because we are talking of a expedited parliamentary procedure, governments are tempted to introduce into the accompanying legislation all sorts of reforms and amendments that have little or nothing to do with the budget itself, and in this way avoid lengthy debates in parliament. This inclination has led to these accompanying laws frequently turning into monstrous omnibus legislation.

Against this background there is nothing new or exceptional about the current debate about the Arrangements Law attached to the 2015-16 Budget Law, both of which will be submitted to the Knesset in September, and must be approved by November 19.

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The legal adviser to the Knesset, Eyal Yinon, published a legal opinion last week warning that the current Arrangements Law as approved by the government constitutes a serious blow to the democratic legislative process, and includes many subjects that have nothing whatsoever to do with the budget that ought to be brought to the Knesset as separate government bills.

After receiving Yinon’s opinion, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein announced that he would not enable the passage of the Arrangements Law by the Knesset in its present form. The Opposition parliamentary groups – especially the Zionist Union and Meretz – have joined the outcry.

The reply of the Finance Ministry, which is responsible for preparing and introducing the Arrangements Law, has been that the reforms included in the Law are all urgent and designed to increase competition in the economy and reduce the cost of living, that the public supports these reforms and expects them to be approved swiftly, and that they were all seriously considered by all the relevant factors before being introduced into the bill. The argument about the Knesset role in the democratic process was ignored – it always is.

We can forecast with a high degree of certainty that finally both the Budget and Arrangements Law will be approved by the Knesset, even though some of the issues currently included in the Arrangements Law will be dropped. That is also part of the ritual.

The difference this year is that because of its narrow majority in the Knesset the government is more eager than previously to minimize the role of the Knesset in the process, and the Opposition, because of its relative numerical strength, and the vigilance and fighting spirit of some of its members, has more bargaining power vis-à-vis the government. It will be an interesting tug of war.

What happened with regard to the natural gas policy outline, which the government initially tried to keep out of the Knesset’s clutches, is an excellent example of the Opposition forcing the government to involve the Knesset in the final policy outcome, even though it is not clear whether the most up-todate version of the outline, after the Knesset’s boisterous intervention, is really that much different to the original outline.

It is said that the new outline, announced the other day by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources Minister Yuval Steinitz, ensures that the price of gas per unit of heat has been lowered from $5.4 to $4.7, and that the development of the Leviathan gas field is now ensured, but that is not necessarily what emerges from the more detailed information published. However, it is still a fact that the government didn’t manage to keep the Knesset totally out of the picture.

More troubling is the systematic efforts of the government as a whole, and individual ministers, to bypass the various gatekeepers, other than the Knesset.

In connection with the natural gas outline, the government managed to force the antitrust commissioner, Professor David Gilo, who objects to the outline, to resign, while Netanyahu and Steinitz dismissed the chairperson of the Electricity Authority, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, for the same reason.

The reaction of Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev to a letter by Attorney General Yehuda Weistein (who was appointed by Netanyahu), to the effect that she may not stop financial support for cultural institutions on grounds of the content of performed plays, as long as there is no breach of the law, and that she would need his approval to change the law, was: “With all due respect to the attorney general, he cannot intervene in my discretion regarding the policy of distribution of budgets in 2016.”

The reports of State Comptroller Yossef Shapira (also a Netanyahu appointee) have received the same disparaging reaction – whether he is talking of the decision making process regarding the natural gas outline, the IDF’s budget, or any other subject, for that matter.

However, the most disparaging reactions by the government and its ministers are reserved for the High Court of Justice.

An especially disturbing example was the post written by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in her facebook account last week, after the publication of the third ruling of the HCJ with regard to the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law as it affects the African asylum seekers, in which she stated that even though the court had not completely invalidated the amendment this time as it had done previously, its intervention in this issue (and others) necessitates the enactment of Basic Law: Legislation, which will redefine the division of powers between the legislature and the judiciary, to the benefit of the former. All this came after a previous post in which she tried to put pressure on the court’s decision in a most inappropriate manner.

It is difficult to disregard the accumulation of all these examples – in some of which Netanyahu was directly involved, and in others where his failure to react in defense of the gatekeepers has been all too obvious.

Though Israeli democracy will undoubtedly survive this onslaught for the foreseeable future, if the onslaught continues the foundations might eventually start to crumble.

The writer is a political scientist and retired Knesset employee.

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