In reality, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation is the true legislative branch of the Israeli government. Does that seem strange? Isn’t it just a government committee, including ministers, representing the various coalition factions and chaired by the justice minister? And isn’t its official role to discuss government and private member’s bills and decide whether the government should support their passage?
If so, how has the committee come to occupy such a critical position in the interface between the Knesset and the government?
The committee, when established in the early days of the state and whose members had a legal background, was meant to conduct a professional review of bills, almost all of which were proposed by the government itself. However, as a result of the meteoric rise in the number of private member’s bills submitted to the Knesset (a veritable plague), the committee’s decision to back or oppose them essentially seals their fate. Thus, if its decision is binding on the coalition, a bill the committee rejects is certain to be voted down.
In fact, what has happened with regard to the committee’s status goes far beyond. Under former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation turned into a rubber stamp for her position. Its deliberations were only a formality, with everything already agreed on in the back room.
To her credit, it must be said that she made the committee’s work more transparent and published her opinion of every bill. Thanks to this transparency, however, it was obvious that 99% of the committee’s decisions were identical to her wishes – meaning that the legislation passed by the Knesset coincided with Shaked’s ideas 99% of the time.
What does the vice chair of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation do?
WHAT ABOUt the committee’s vice-chair? The vice-chair’s powers are anchored in the coalition agreements for the 34th and 35th governments (2015–2021) and were introduced at the time as a means to ensure that the Likud could keep the committee’s agenda under its thumb. As a result of the fact that in those years the justice minister was a member of other coalition factions (the Jewish Home in the case of Shaked; Blue and White in the case of Avi Nissenkorn), a minister from the Likud, the largest coalition party, was named vice-chairman of the committee. While in principle government bylaws permit the appointment of a vice-chairman for a ministerial committee, the powers of the vice-chairman of the Committee on Legislation were defined in such a way as to enable the Likud representative to put a spoke in its wheels.
The provision that the convening of committee meetings, their agenda and the voting within them require an explicit advance agreement between the chair and the vice-chair could, under certain circumstances, sabotage its work, and not just in theory. In the 35th Government (23rd Knesset), when Nissenkorn was the committee chair, it was paralyzed for long stretches of time because of disagreement between him and the vice-chair, David Amsalem of the Likud. And so, on the basis of this experience, in the new government we can expect the committee to fall hostage to Itamar Ben-Gvir.
What is particularly conspicuous in coalition negotiations is that egregious sins committed in earlier agreements, such as amending Basic Laws to satisfy coalition needs, or in the present case, permitting the vice-chair of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation to veto its agenda, are being abused by those who wish to curtail our democracy.
In order to prevent the committee and its vice chair, Ben-Gvir, from turning into a legislative guillotine, we must amend the Knesset procedure and private member’s bills (with a limitation on their number) should be brought for their preliminary reading to the plenum before being discussed in the committee. This would restore the balance of legislative power to the Knesset.
Moreover, in fact, it is the other political forces that must learn a lesson: Safeguarding the rules is meant to do just that so that when new players enter the game they cannot turn them around. Those who arrogated the Right to amend Basic Laws with scarcely a second thought, even with good intentions, who delegated powers, split up Government ministries and invented new positions to serve as coalition payoffs also bear responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in today.
In a democracy, unlike in other regimes, one must legislate and govern independently of whether you won or lost today. This is why a stable and hard-to-amend constitution is so essential for democracy: to make it impossible for every new coalition agreement and random political circumstances to rewrite the rulebook.
Dr. Dana Blander and Dr. Chen Friedberg are research fellows at the Israel Democracy Institute.