Think About It: An additional extension of the Knesset building

Last week we were informed that the Jerusalem Local Planning and Building Committee recommended adopting a grandiose plan for expanding the floor area of the Knesset.

August 25, 2019 21:39
Think About It: An additional extension of the Knesset building

The Knesset . (photo credit: REUTERS)

In January 2008 the new eastern wing (Kedma) of the Knesset was opened. The wing includes committee rooms (the old committee rooms were handed over to the parliamentary groups), some 50 offices for MKs (the original building completed in 1966 did not contain any offices for MKs, and various permanent and makeshift offices were created over the years), offices for various Knesset departments and units such as the Legal Department (which didn’t originally exist and now includes several dozen attorneys), the Knesset Research and Information Center (opened in 2000), the computer unit (originally formed in the 1990s), the printing unit, TV studios (the Knesset TV channel started to broadcast in the beginning of the millennium), a gym and various other facilities. The planning of the eastern wing began in the 1990s, and the final cost amounted to several hundreds of millions of shekels.

Last week we were informed that the Jerusalem Local Planning and Building Committee recommended adopting a grandiose plan for expanding the floor area of the Knesset from some 90,000 sq.m. today to some 192,000 sq.m. (mostly along the southern side of the Knesset compound facing the Israel Museum), on the basis of a plan initiated by the Knesset administration with the participation of four MKs in 2017.

The Tel Aviv-based Peleg Architects firm won a tender for the actual planning and execution of the project. As was the case in the eastern wing, so also this time there was no architectural competition.

There is no information available on the Knesset website on the project, and at the moment the only available information comes from the written media. However, a comparison of what was reported last week with an article on the project published in Israel Hayom last January suggests that in the last eight months the dimensions of the project were increased substantially.

The project, which bears the title “Knesset 2040,” includes the construction of offices for MKs, under the assumption that in future the number of MKs will increase from 120 to 140; or that, if the full Norwegian Law is adopted, there will be at least 120 full-time MKs in addition to 20-30 members of the government who will not be MKs, but will nevertheless require offices in the Knesset. It is also assumed that in future MKs will be entitled to five parliamentary assistants, compared to the current three.

The new building is also to include a committee compound (it is not clear what will be done with the current one), a separate administration building, a visitors’ center, a separate building for the Central Elections Committee, a gym (what is wrong with the old one?) and possibly also a motel for MKs (currently MKs who live outside of Jerusalem stay in regular hotels at the Knesset’s expense). About half the new extension will be devoted to 1,400 underground parking places.

Though the architects of the project have claimed that the model and sketches presented to the Planning Committee are not accurate (photographs may be seen in two articles on the subject, one published in Haaretz Galeria on August 22 and the second on the TheMarker website on August 18), the general impression is that while like the previous expansion (planned by the architects Nahum Melzer and Guy Igra) the current program does not hide the original building, it certainly minimizes its prominence, extends the built-up part of the Knesset compound to the very limit, and obliterates what remains of the Knesset’s original gardening.

While there is no doubt that planning ahead is important, and that there is some congestion in certain parts of the Knesset during the hours when the Knesset is in session, I have a feeling that the whole plan was devised in haste, on the basis of the vested interests of the Knesset administration and ambitious MKs, rather than on what is really required to enable the better functioning of the Knesset.

For example, though MKs would certainly love to have two more assistants, who would require more office space, even today assistants are employed by MKs wastefully and frequently in contradiction to the rules that stipulate that assistants should be employed only to help the MKs fulfill their jobs. Furthermore, since only 5% of all private members’ bills are actually enacted and turn into law, a lot of time and superfluous work are wasted in this sphere – largely by parliamentary assistants, but also by the Knesset’s Legal Department, its Research and Information Center and by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation.

Certainly a serious discussion on whether Israel needs more MKs, whether it should implement a Norwegian Law, and what MKs are supposed to do, as opposed to what they actually do, should take place before one starts planning the future Knesset in physical terms at a ridiculous cost. It is as if someone decided to place the cart before the horse.

THAT OUR current political leadership, which seems bent on doing everything in its power to weaken the Knesset in general and the opposition MKs in particular, is planning to spend hundreds of millions of shekels [if not more] on aggrandizing the Knesset’s physical dimensions, while ignoring its functional needs, is disturbing.

It is conventional wisdom, among those who wish to see the Knesset fulfill in functions more effectively, that a great problem concerns its weakness in overseeing the executive branch.

In the course of the term of the 20th Knesset, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked tried to do something about this, in cooperation with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, but very little, if anything, came of their efforts, primarily because they did not have tailwinds from the government. The last thing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants is more effective Knesset oversight and “gatekeeping.” I expect he is partial to the prospect of doubling the physical size of the Knesset, despite the financial cost.

Though the fact that the project has been approved (in principle) by the Local Committee doesn’t mean that it will actually be finally approved at the district level and implemented in its current form, the lack of transparency in the way the whole process has been carried out up to the present stage is worrying. For example, I was shocked to discover that several senior officials in the Knesset itself have little more idea on the ins and outs of the project than I have.

Four MKs served on the Knesset steering committee – set up during the 20th Knesset – that initiated the project. These were David Amsalem (Likud), Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid), Tali Ploskov (Kulanu) and Yakov Asher (United Torah Judaism). It would be interesting to know what role each of them played in the formulation of the project, especially the two who are former mayors – Cohen of Dimona and Ploskov of Arad – and ought to know a thing or two about major construction projects.

I sincerely hope that the Knesset administration and the planners will take a step back and reconsider the real needs of our house of representatives, and what it ought to symbolize.

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