Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Over the past few weeks, the 2015 budget has been the topic of much vocal and critical debate in the media and in the halls of the Knesset. But lost in the shadows, hidden away from the public debate, is a rather unknown and anti-democratic phenomenon.
Since 1985, the so-called Appropriations Law has been used by every single Israeli government to slip a group of appendices and additions into the budget, to be voted on as a single package. In practice, due to the nature in which this package of bills is proposed and the sheer number of varying proposals included within it, the Appropriations Law inhibits the ability of Knesset members to understand what they are actually voting on, thereby weakening their ability to act as the elected representatives of the public.
The Appropriations Law bill for 2015 contains proposed measures as varied as a tax on medical tourism and a proposal for increased oversight of the Jewish National Fund’s Israeli counterpart, Keren Kayemet LeIsrael. The tax on medical tourism is part of the recommendations of the commission aiming to improve public health in Israel headed by Health Minister Yael German. This bill, which seeks to transfer money from international medical tourists into the health system, now looks likely to be sent into the Labor Committee to be defeated as part of a deal that Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid made with the Yisrael Beytenu, members of which have a decidedly personal and economic interest in its defeat: in order to get Lapid’s signature 0% VAT tax approved.
The fact that such a bill could essentially be “disappeared” in order to make a coalition deal shows that far too often, the proposed legislation contained in the Appropriations Law appears to represent the interests of individual Knesset members and wheeling and dealing between factions as opposed to the true interests of the voters.
In short, it seems that in its current state, the law is being utilized as a way to make political deals away from the public eye.
Indeed, in a 2003 ruling, the Supreme Court, while stopping short of overturning the law, declared that usage of the Appropriations Law “raises many problems in regards to the appropriate democratic process... because it is characterized by the number and variety of topics treated by it as a single unit and [because of] the short time granted to the government and the Knesset to discuss these issues.”
By its very nature, therefore, this law openly runs counter to the democratic nature of the Israeli legislative process. The job of Knesset members is to act as the voices and representatives of the Israeli public, but this law essentially makes it impossible for them to do so.
The struggle against this law is not a “Left-Right” issue; in fact, appropriations laws actually vaster than the current one have been promoted by right-wing governments as well as left-wing ones. That being said, the mere existence of the law clearly undermines the public’s access to knowledge and the transparency of the government, and hampers the sort of free and vigorous public debate that is the signature of the type of democracy that Israel aspires to be.
One of the most powerful and significant steps that Israeli elected officials can take right now to strengthen the increasingly fragile state of Israeli democracy is calling for the coalition to discontinue usage of the Appropriations Law. Such a change will lead to more transparency in the Knesset, a more open public dialogue on the way that Israelis’ money is being spent, and represents a concrete way to weaken the stranglehold of specific economic interests and corporations on the way the government works. It is time for the Knesset to return to being the home of officials who listen to and represent the will of their true constituency – the Israeli public.
The author is the field coordinator of the Social Guard.