Background: Who gets to disperse the Knesset?

The battle over which branch of government - the legislative or the executive - is authorized to disperse the 16th Knesset includes political, practical and constitutional considerations mixed into a messy and confusing package. Even late Tuesday night, after Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin announced that President Moshe Katsav and Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz had agreed to a compromise solution, some of the details of the deal remained unresolved and could yet turn out to be problematic. Mazuz, Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon, Rivlin and MK Michael Eitan are due to meet this morning at Katsav's home to hammer out the final agreement. According to Article 29 of the Basic Law: Government, if the prime minister comes to the conclusion that he no longer e njoys the confidence of the Knesset and cannot govern, he may ask the president for permission to issue an executive order dispersing parliament and calling for new elections. If the president is convinced that the prime minister is correct and that there is no alternative candidate from within the Knesset to replace him, he must approve the request. At the same time, the law also grants the Knesset the right to disperse itself by passing a law to that effect backed by an absolute majority of MKs. The la w does not determine whether one method of dispersing the Knesset has preference over the other. Sharon started the executive procedure first, by informing Katsav on Sunday that he wanted to disperse the Knesset. On the following day, the Knesset approved eight members' bills to disperse. Two practical and political issues were also at stake. The first was the date of the next election. The second was whether or not Sharon would be able to appoint new ministers to the cabinet. The executive procedure would enable Sharon to hold elections as early as August 7 (with Katsav's immediate consent). The Knesset wanted the election date to be August 28. Secondly, the executive procedure would allow Sharon to appoint new ministers without Knesset approval. Th e Knesset law would have required parliamentary approval for such appointments. Katsav insisted that, since the executive procedure had begun first, it had precedent and therefore had to be fully implemented. On the other hand, he agreed that the election date should be March 28, in accordance with the wishes of the Knesset. The Knesset insisted that it had the sovereign right to pass legislation and that this principle certainly applied to legislation regarding its own affairs. On the face of it, the Knesset had the upper hand. It could pass a law to disperse itself within a day or two of deliberations, whereas the executive procedure requires a minimum of 21 days until the election date can be officially set. But Knesset leaders agreed that a battle pitting the attorney-general and the president against parliament would be highly embarrassing. Therefore, the sides set out to find a compromise. But as Tuesday drew to an end, only two things seemed certain. The first was that both sides agreed that the election would be held on March 28. It also appeared certain that Sharon would be able to appoint ministers without Knesset approval. However, the mechanics for implementing the compromise were not yet certain. Eitan told The Jerusalem Post he wanted the Knesset to pass the law dispersing itself in the next day or two. However, the Knesset would promise to rescind the law as long as Katsav granted permission to Sharon to issue the executive order dispersing the Knesset on December 8. According to the terms of Paragraph 29 of the Basic Law: Government, if the executive order is issued on December 8, the election date will fall on March 28, precisely the date demanded by the Knesset. On the other hand, if Sharon issues the executive order and the Knesset law is cancelled, he would be entitled to appoint new ministers without Knesset approval. Katsav believes this proviso is necessary because Sharon might have to bolster his cabinet should the Likud ministers resign from it, as expected. Acc ording to some reports, however, Katsav wants the Knesset to suspend legislation of the bill to disperse itself so that the only procedure in effect will be the executive one. The Knesset may not agree to this condition.on