PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
If a bill proposed this week by Likud MK Yoav Kisch and Zionist Union MK Hilik Bar becomes law, the country’s citizens will be invited to join the legislative process via petition.
The publicly proposed bills cannot be Basic Laws or amendments to Basic Laws – which have constitutional status – or deal with foreign relations, national security, taxation, budgets over NIS 5 million or pardoning criminals.
But that leaves considerable room for legislative endeavor in other areas in need of help. A petition would need at least 50,000 signatures to submit a draft bill. It would then undergo the regular legislative process – consideration in the Knesset House Committee, discussions in the relevant legislative committee, and, to become law, three votes in the plenum. Thus it has been nicknamed “the 121st MK.”
“We want to express the will of the people in the clearest way possible,” Kisch said. “This technological age allows greater social involvement and citizens have a great amount of knowledge. There is no reason for them not to be able to have their say on issues they care about.”
This is a welcome practice for Israel, but we should take caution from how a similar project has been operating in the United States. There, by the way, the threshold for a bill petition is 100,000 signatures out of a population of some 300 million; compared to Israel’s 50,000 out of a population of some 8 million.
The US petition enterprise is known as We the People, a feature of the White House website since 2011. Petitions that meet a threshold of 100,000 signatures are reviewed by officials and responses are usually issued. But neither criminal justice proceedings nor real processes of the federal government are subject to these White House website petitions. They are a public relations device for the Obama administration, encouraging citizens to express themselves.
In America, anything can happen. In 2012, a petition was circulated urging the government to build a Death Star to stimulate the economy and create jobs. It gained the 25,000 signatures that were the threshold at the time. The official response noted with tongue in cheek that the cost of building a real Death Star has been estimated at $852 quadrillion, and that at current rates of steel production, it would not be ready for more than 833,000 years.
Not all petitions are frivolous. In February 2013, a petition started by digital rights activist Sina Khanifar reached the 100,000-signature threshold. Two weeks later, the Obama administration issued a response urging the Federal Communications Commission and Congress to legalize cellphone unlocking, enabling people to switch service providers using the same mobile device. A year later, the first piece of legislation started by an online petition, the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, was passed by Congress.
That’s the kind of initiative that befits the only democracy in the Middle East. But while there is no shortage of causes that are practically begging for bill petitions, a brief survey reveals that every nearly every bill petition innocently proposed as unique in fact referred to a law already on the books. Take, for example, one of the most popular bill suggestions – barring politicians convicted of moral turpitude from returning to politics for seven years – it turns out we already have such a law. Perhaps someone would initiate a bill petition to make that time-out period permanent.
Our brief survey turned up a similar result with regard to a proposed bill to penalize motor scooter drivers for weaving in and out of traffic and passing on the right. It seems reckless driving is already prohibited by law. How about a petition for a bill to create a traffic police? Or does that exist already, too? Kisch predicted that legalizing cannabis would be one of the initiatives to come from the public. At least that would be a new law. Bar said the petition proposal “balances the Knesset’s dignity as the legislature, while allowing public participation.... It will dramatically broaden citizens’ participation in the democratic process. We believe the public is smart. We believe in the wisdom of crowds.”
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said it is “very important to bring the public closer to the legislature and let it try to influence the democratic process, not just by voting for representatives in the Knesset once every few years.”
How a about a petition for a bill to elect Knesset representatives responsible to their constituencies, and not chosen by party machers