Analysis: Knesset in a coma

The legislature closed out its winter session with a sleepy atmosphere.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset
The Knesset wrapped up its winter session this week in what felt like a semi-vegetative state.
There was an uncharacteristic lack of drama in the Knesset on Wednesday, the last day before it goes on Passover recess until May 22.
The last week of any Knesset session is known as “table-cleaning” time, when the MKs try to vote on as many bills as possible before their long break. And yet, on Wednesday, only a dozen bills went to a vote, a decidedly low amount for even the middle of a session, and MKs and Knesset staff started pouring out of the building in the early afternoon, earlier than most Wednesdays.
That somnolent atmosphere was unusual for the end of a session, but characteristic of the recent months in the Knesset, certainly since the budget passed in November. While there was the occasional flare-up over one bill or another that the Left considered “fascist,” or comments of actions from Joint List MKs that the Right and some of the Left considered treacherous, or panic in religious parties over encroaching influence of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, on the whole, things have been oddly serene.
The facts and the numbers seem to belie the sense of sleepiness emanating from Givat Ram.
As the Knesset’s Spokesman proudly wrote to reporters, parliamentary committees held 1,600 meetings and over 110 new laws passed. The Knesset passed laws meant to fight the wave of terror that began days before the winter session commenced in October, including increasing the punishment for rock-throwing, increasing the punishment for employing or housing people who entered the country illegally, and a limited stop-and-frisk law. MKs voted on a new budget to limit finance executives’ pay, lower the prices on public transportation and regulate foster parenting. New immigrants in medical professions could celebrate votes to waive requirements for licensing exams when they move to Israel, if they have a minimum amount of experience.
Beyond the actual work were the scandals, whether it was MK Oren Hazan (Likud) seemingly mocking Yesh Atid MK Karin Alharrar’s disability or getting into a shouting match with MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union) or the Likud subsequently expelling him from committees for his habitual truancy. The Ethics Committee suspended MKs from the Balad Party within the Joint List, Haneen Zoabi, Jamal Zahalka and Bassel Ghattas, after they visited with Palestinian terrorists’ families and stood in a moment of silence in memory of the “martyrs.” Two Likud MKs went on strike for a month in protest over the Prime Minister’s Office to slow down Aliya from Ethiopia. Haredi politicians came up with various nicknames for Reform Jewry, including “Haman. And those are just the highlights.
So the MKs weren’t actually asleep on the job. Why did it feel that way in the halls of the legislature?
The first reason is the 61-MK coalition. When it was first formed and jobs were distributed to its members, it seemed that the narrow coalition would keep lawmakers busier than ever before running from one committee to another and having constant all-nighters in the plenum while the opposition tried to filibuster its way to victories.
The months following the budget’s passage have proven that the opposite is true. The 12-hour plenum meetings have mostly come to an end (though there was one on Monday), with the opposition finding other ways to kill coalition proposals without torturing themselves with sleepless nights. Since the Knesset was sworn in a year ago, the opposition has won 11 votes, though none have been particularly significant, as opposed to the last two Knessets in which losing once was a lot for the coalition.
Meanwhile, the coalition’s leadership has done all it can to minimize the amount of votes, to the frustration of backbenchers who want their names in the law books. The Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which determines the coalition’s stance on bills, postponed doing so for the vast majority of initiatives that reached its table, so MKs who want their proposals to pass will wait before putting them on the Knesset’s docket. The last month’s rebellion by Likud MKs Avraham Neguise and David Amsalem amplified the avoidance tactics, because in many cases, the coalition simply didn’t have the votes.
Plus, the coalition is so delicate that its parties are wary of taking a step out of line. The coalition’s leadership is mostly happy with the makeup of the coalition and say it’s stable in the sense that it’s fairly homogeneous on a lot of issues, but five parties are never going to agree on everything. With only 61 members, a bill can’t pass without strict discipline, which means that for anything to move forward, all the coalition’s parties have to agree in advance. That turns the Knesset’s committees, the place where bills are meant to be tweaked and amended, into more of a technicality, because the coalition factions’ leaders already negotiated everything behind closed doors. The game was already rigged.
Another explanation is a problem the Knesset has had for a long time: It gets a bad rap. Hazan’s antics or the Balad outrage-du-jour get more airtime and headlines than legislation that helps citizens out, but isn’t as “sexy” as a shouting match, like a law limiting how much lawyers charge Holocaust survivors to help them get restitution funds. The slanted and scandal-focused media coverage – which The Jerusalem Post tries to avoid, but is not wholly innocent of – takes the attention away from the MKs’ real work and perpetuates the idea that our taxpayer money goes to 120 people who sit around and shout at each other all day.
While MK Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) stared a caucus to improve the Knesset’s image, the Knesset dedicated significant funds to PR, and many lawmakers keep their heads down while doing things to help the average citizen, there are plenty of MKs who responded in the opposite way to the balance of attention and tried to be as loud and outrageous as possible without making concrete contributions.
It’s hard to say if much will change in either of those fronts, unless an opposition party unexpectedly decides to join the coalition. If not, the Knesset can expect a sleepy summer, too.