Politics: Bracing for battle

For the Speaker, the winter session is a struggle to keep the Knesset relevant.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin has seen a few Knesset sessions open in his more than 20 years as a legislator, but this October, the veteran Likud MK is preparing for a real struggle.
With diplomatic issues looming in the foreground, Rivlin is ready for a fight on an entirely different – but not entirely unrelated – battleground. He is planning to take on the government to maintain the Knesset’s relevance as an independent authority, and promises to hit it at its weak point: If the government does not drastically change the format of the economic arrangements bill, he will not allow it to be submitted to the Knesset for a vote.
“Beyond the diplomatic issues, we see a serious struggle between the executive authority and the Knesset, a struggle that is expressed through the budget, the way that the government deals with challenges within the coalition and especially with the handicap that is the need to get the coalition members back in line for every vote,” Rivlin said.
The government has already approved the biennial budget for 2011-2012, and it is now up to the Knesset to pass the budget, together with the now-traditional economic arrangements bill that is tied to it. Since a vote on the budget is considered to be a coalition test and any failure to pass it is considered a no-confidence vote, coalition partners often use the threat of opposing the budget to gain policy or budgetary leverage.
Although earlier this week, Rivlin said that he did not oppose continuing what he emphasized was an “experiment” in passing a biennial budget, he told The Jerusalem Post that it is at its root a battle in the war over the role of the Knesset. “The government has tried to bypass the Knesset with a biennial budget and the economic arrangements bill,” complained Rivlin.
“The government uses the economic arrangements bill to bypass the Knesset by including in it everything the government wants, even if it has nothing to do with the budget.
“For instance, it is trying to bring back Wisconsin Plan in the bill, despite the fact that it was struck down by the Knesset, with the backing of MKs from the major coalition parties. Beyond that, it has also included clauses giving more authority to police, decreasing the number of judges sitting on an appeal and not obligating the government to advertise tenders in newspapers.
“These kinds of things make the Knesset redundant.
The Knesset can just meet every two years to pass the budget and an economic arrangements bill that has everything the government wants, a collection of laws that otherwise have no bearing on each other.”
“This makes sense financially because the Knesset costs NIS 500 million every year to operate, and so if we just had elections every four years and voted on a four-year budget and economic arrangements bill, we could save NIS 2 billion,” offered Rivlin, with a pinch of the tongue-in-cheek sarcasm for which he is known in the Knesset.
According to Rivlin, he initially agreed to extend the biennial budget after the “OECD said it was an interesting experiment” and he agreed with the Treasury that it needed another two years to see if it was an effective governmental tool. “I agreed to extend the experiment in part to see if it was effective for the economy. The finance minister [Yuval Steinitz] asked for my moral support, and I agreed on condition that the economic arrangements bill would not include non-budgetary clauses.”
That condition, Rivlin said, was quickly violated.
“They lied to themselves, because no one can get away with lying to me. I will file the budget, but I won’t put the economic arrangements bill on the Knesset’s agenda until they give us a bill that does not bypass the Knesset. I will not allow that to happen,” he promised.
“I am not intervening in fiscal, monetary or economic policy,” he added, explaining that the contents of the bill are anything but. “The government’s expectation that we pass the bill in its entirety denies the ability of each MK to vote according to his conscience. I cannot allow a situation in which I am submitted a compendium of 100 laws, in which I agree with 80, and then am forced to decide whether I approve the 100 in spite of the 20, or reject all 100 because of the 20.”
THE ECONOMIC arrangements bill is the freshest bee in Rivlin’s bonnet, but it is not the only one. He is also wary of a bill filed by MK Ophir Akunis (Likud), seen as one of the MKs closest to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, that would require a national referendum – but not a Knesset vote – in the case of any final status agreement with the Palestinians. The bill, hinted Rivlin, was coordinated from its earliest days with the prime minister – a fact that does not deter him from expressing his deep opposition to the initiative.
“Israel holds a referendum every four years, when it elects its representatives to the Knesset,” he said.
“When a government changes its opinion from what it presented to the public, the Knesset can decide whether or not to approve it, but making a referendum instead of the Knesset bypasses the Knesset. It’s like saying [to the Knesset] who are you to decide.”
Rivlin does not deny the utility of a referendum as an additional possibility, noting that “there are countries that require a referendum for key issues, but referendum must be legislated without regard to issues, not as a pressure tactic. A referendum can be done through clear rules that are outlined in a constitution, after answers are reached to questions, including who funds a referendum and who is responsible for advertising the two positions.”
With three days left before the opening of the winter session, Rivlin’s dance card for parliamentary fights appears to be quickly filling up – even before taking into consideration questions of peace talks and building in the settlements. And when the man with the speaker’s gavel is ready for a fight, Knesset observers are guaranteed anything but a boring – albeit long – session.