A Knesset adrift - analysis

The Knesset is an independent branch of government, but it’s mostly paralyzed without a coalition

The Likud party meets in the Knesset on September 23, 2019. (photo credit: LIKUD)
The Likud party meets in the Knesset on September 23, 2019.
(photo credit: LIKUD)
So many people have asked how the Knesset can be sworn in if there is no coalition government that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein felt the need to post a video on Twitter to answer it.
“The Knesset is independent,” Edelstein explained. “It is an independent branch [of government] not dependent on whether there is a [coalition] government or not. According to the law in Israel, two weeks after an election, the new MKs who you elected are sworn in.”
Edelstein promised the Knesset will begin working immediately, with a temporary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and Finance Committee to deal with the major issues on the country’s agenda.
Yes, like any democracy worth its mettle, Israel has three branches of government: Executive, Legislative and Judiciary.
The Knesset was sworn in on Thursday because its members were elected by the people two weeks and two days ago – the extra two days are due to Rosh Hashanah and the Fast of Gedaliah – and that happens regardless of whether there is a coalition or anything approaching one.
But the Knesset is not quite as independent as Edelstein’s tweet would make it seem.
Yes, it derives its power independently from the votes of Israeli citizens. But lacking a coalition, the Knesset will remain mostly paralyzed.
Over time, political norms in Israel have made the Knesset less and less independent, and ever more reliant on the governing coalition.
The vast majority of the real decisions of what laws are passed and what policies are put forward are made on the government level. Any bill submitted goes to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, where a select group of ministers vote on what the coalition’s position on the proposal will be.
Then, the vast majority of the time, whatever the committee decides is what happens in the Knesset: if they approve the bill, it will pass, and if they reject it, it will fail. Sometimes there are surprises, but rarely when there is a functioning coalition.
The Knesset has another job besides passing laws, namely government oversight. While an effort has been made in recent years – under Edelstein’s stewardship with cooperation from former justice minister Ayelet Shaked – to combat the inflated number of bills proposed and to work on increasing oversight, there has not been a major shift in MKs’ priorities. This is likely because bills usually grab more public attention.
Even on Thursday, as the 22nd Knesset was just sworn in, MKs submitted large numbers of bills, mostly retreads of ones that went nowhere in the short-lived last Knesset.
For the time being there is only an Arrangements Committee, the interim version of the House Committee, which is supposed to bring urgent matters to a vote, and not the full infrastructure that works on legislation.
The Finance Committee, still led by UTJ MK Moshe Gafni, will continue to authorize budgetary transfers, and the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, now under Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi, will continue to authorize matters of urgent national security. The work of both these committees just can’t wait until coalition talks end.
But other than that, the Knesset will be largely paralyzed as coalition talks continue, with no clear end in sight.