Guide for the perplexed: The end of the 16th Knesset

Q. Why did Prime Minister Ariel Sharon go to President Katsav on Monday? A. Sharon went to Katsav to ask him for permission to issue an order dispersing the current Knesset and calling for new elections in accordance with Article 29 of the Basic Law: Government. This is the most convenient means of holding new elections as far as Sharon is concerned, because this way the government would not be dependent on the Knesset during the interim months leading up to the election. Sharon would thus be able to appoint new ministers to his cabinet without requiring parliamentary approval. In practice, under the present circumstances, it is also the quickest way for Sharon to hold new elections. According to the law, once the order to disperse the Knesset is issued, the president must wait 21 days to see whether a group of 61 MKs can get together to recommend appointing someone to replace Sharon. If there is no such candidate, the elections will be held on the last Tuesday before 90 more days expire. Q. Since Sharon went to Katsav in the morning, why did the Knesset approve several private members' bills in the afternoon calling for new elections? A. The Knesset wants to set the date in accordance with the needs of the parliamentary factions. A parliamentary law may set a date for new elections up to a maximum of five months from the day it is passed. Furthermore, if it is the Knesset rather than the prime minister who disperses parliament, Sharon will still have to obtain the Knesset's permission to appoint new cabinet ministers. Q. What dates are at issue? A. The difference between Sharon and the Knesset boils down to about three weeks. Sharon would like the elections to be held on March 7. Labor Party leader Amir Peretz today referred to March 28 as the preferred date of most Knesset factions. According to some reports, which were confirmed by Sharon, the Likud would like to put the elections off until May. Q. Why is the election date so important? A. From a political point of view, Sharon is anxious to hold the elections as quickly as possible, while the surprise effect of his decision to form a new party is still fresh. Even though many politicians expected the prime minister to make such a move, the Likud was still caught off guard. Furthermore, five leading figures - Binyamin Netanyahu, Yisrael Katz, Silvan Shalom, Shaul Mofaz and Uzi Landau - have announced that they will run for Likud party leadership. The internal election battle may cause new discord in the party which could work in Sharon's favor, especially if the battle scars are still raw. By the same token, the other parties want more time to prepare for the campaign. From a broader perspective, all of the parties agree that the campaign should not be protracted. A transitional government is not democratically sound, since its actions are essentially free of parliamentary constraints. Katsav has made it clear he will do all he can to guarantee that the elections will be held as quickly as possible. Q. What happens next, after the private members' bills calling for new elections passed the Knesset in preliminary reading? A. The bills will be submitted to either the Knesset House Committee or the Knesset Law Committee for preparation for first reading. This is an important crossroads, because the chairman of the House Committee, Roni Bar-On, has left the Likud and will try to hold up the bill, while the chairman of the Law Committee, Michael Eitan, remains in the Likud and will try to shepherd the bill through the legislative process as fast as he can within the constraints of his responsibilities. The situation could lead to a constitutional crisis should Katsav decide not to wait for the Knesset to approve the bills calling for new elections. In these circumstances, Katsav could allow Sharon to issue the order to disperse the elections while the Knesset continued to consider the legislation. A situation could arise where two processes for dispersing the Knesset are in operation at the same time. Q. Will the new party receive the campaign funding money that its MKs would have been entitled to had they remained in the Likud? A. Yes, according to a new law that was passed in the outgoing Knesset. In the past, at least one-third of the Likud MKs would have had to join the new party in order to be able to transfer their portion of campaign funding to the new party. Q. How will the calling of new elections less than three months before the beginning of the new fiscal year affect the budget? A. According to the law, if no budget for 2006 is passed by January 1, the government may continue to operate according to the 2005 budget, according to a spending rate of 1⁄12 of the total sum each month. Normally, if the Knesset did not pass a new budget by March 31 of the fiscal year, the government would automatically fall. However, if Knesset elections take place after the previous year's budget expires on December 31 and the outgoing government fails to pass a new budget before election day, the newly established government has 45 days after its installation to pass a new budget. Until then, the new government will operate according to the previous year's budget even after March 31. Given that the elections for the 17th Knesset will likely not take place until some time in March and that it will take the leader of the party chosen to form the new government weeks of negotiations before he forms a coalition, the fiscal 2005 budget will apparently be in force well into 2006.