There is still hope for Knesset reform

When legislators exhibit such disdain for the country’s legislative body, is it any wonder the average citizen does too?

The Knesset building (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Knesset building
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
PUBLIC TRUST in Israel’s political institutions is at an all-time low. According to the latest polling undertaken by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), only one in four Israeli citizens trust the Knesset, and only 14 percent trust the country’s political parties.
This lack of faith is a symptom of a much deeper problem that cuts across political ideologies and personalities. Thankfully, solutions are available. And the Knesset is waking up to the need for sweeping reform.
One of the biggest sources of public discontent is the way the Knesset fulfills the two essential functions of a parliament: to legislate laws and to oversee the executive branch. There are serious deficiencies in both areas.
Let’s start with legislation. As Dr. Chen Friedberg, an IDI researcher, has shown, Israel’s Knesset is the world leader in private legislation. Over the last 15 years, nearly 25,000 bills have flooded the Knesset agenda, threatening to drown our elected representatives in a tsunami of paper. To put this in context, during the same time period Germany’s parliament debated 865 private bills, and Holland and New Zealand less than 200 each. The situation in Israel, sadly, has only grown worse in recent years. The current Knesset – only two years into its term – has already seen 4,000 private bills.
The vast majority of these legislative proposals, it should go without saying, are hurriedly written, without due care given to their budgetary implications, effect on other institutions, or impact on civil liberties. The Knesset members know that there is usually little chance their proposed bills will actually pass. Indeed, this is precisely the point of many of the more reckless proposals: to generate media attention and curry favor with particular political constituencies, rather than effect lasting change. When legislators exhibit such disdain for the country’s legislative body, is it any wonder the average citizen does too? The Knesset’s role, however, isn’t just to legislate, but to supervise the government and hold it accountable to the people. Yet here too the Knesset, as presently constituted, is not fulfilling its role.
The Knesset’s committee system is bloated and unwieldy: 12 permanent committees, 34 sub-committees, 15 joint committees, and 7 special committees. Every Knesset member who is not a government minister or deputy minister serves, on average, on 2.3 committees; members of the governing coalition sometimes find themselves dividing their time between 5 different committees. When all these various committees meet at the same time, which happens often, it becomes a physical impossibility for these Knesset members to contribute meaningfully to the proceedings. Moreover, unlike the US system, Israeli parliamentarians do not have oversight responsibility over the budget process nor subpoena power over witnesses.
Often witnesses simply do not show up. This state of affairs is not a recipe for either good committee work or effective oversight.
Fortunately, considerable effort has been put into finding possible solutions to these problems.
Many Knesset members are now aware that there is a serious problem with their institution that requires serious structural reform. A parliamentary caucus has been established to restore public trust in the Knesset, which recently received the blessing of the President.
And two prominent politicians have taken up the cause in recent months: Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin have proposed a package deal, in which the government would allow enhanced Knesset oversight in exchange for limitations on private legislation.
The Shaked-Levin reform proposes to limit the number of private legislative bills put forward by each Knesset member to 4 per year.
This will cut down on wasted time and effort, allowing the body to debate only those bills that have a genuine chance of passing – while also forcing Knesset members to use their allotted number of proposed bills wisely.
Second, the reform proposal promises to imbue Knesset committees with enhanced oversight over their respective ministries, including a much greater role in approving the relevant budgets.
Third, the number of Knesset members serving on each committee will be limited, allowing them to concentrate their work on a few issues well rather than many issues poorly (or not all).
Fourth, and finally, Knesset committees will enjoy greater power to summon civil service appointees to public hearings.
At the same time, it is important to place smart limits on the Knesset’s supervisory capacity as well. For instance, the proposal to make confirmation of civil servants dependent on committee votes is a bad one that will inevitably politicize the process.
Passing these reforms will certainly strengthen the functioning of the Knesset. Such a bipartisan reform agenda will show that it is possible to set aside narrow political differences for the greater good. Taken together, it will set us on the road to regaining the Israeli public’s trust in its governing institutions.
Yohanan Plesner is president of the Israel Democracy Institute