Because of the trees - opinion

It is believed that sooner or later the number of MKs will grow from 120 to at least 140.

THE KNESSET – is bigger better? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE KNESSET – is bigger better?
The headline of this article reads like a good beginning for an essay competition in which the competitors are asked to write an essay beginning with these four words.
I doubt whether it would occur to any of them to connect these words to the plan to extend the Knesset building for the third time since the building was inaugurated in 1966. However, just over two weeks ago, the Calcalist economic news daily announced: “Because of the trees: The plan for extending the Knesset Building was not approved.”
How many readers noticed that there was a megalomaniacal plan to expand the current Knesset building by the year 2040, and that it was approved by the Local Committee for Planning and Building for Jerusalem in mid-August 2019, six months before the COVID-19 pandemic came into our lives, when we were preparing for the second round of elections to the Knesset in 2019, while the Knesset itself was in a deep state of dysfunction, and physical space seemed the last of its worries?
In September, the plan was opened for public objections, and on December 16, 2020, the Regional Committee for Planning and Building for Jerusalem refused to approve it, primarily because it involved the cutting down of 716 full-grown trees to the east and south of the current building. The committee decided to send the plan back to the Knesset administration, which will return it to the architectural firm that was selected to plan the extension – Gal-Peleg Architects of Tel-Aviv – for revision.
That the plan for extension has been brought is not surprising, nor is the fact that the construction is due to be completed only in 2040. The planning of the last extension – the Kedma wing – began in 1997, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first premiership, with Dan Tichon as Knesset speaker, and was completed in 2008, when Ehud Olmert was prime minister and Dalia Itzik was speaker. At the time, the need for space was urgent, and caravans had been set up both to the east of the building and to its west, to supply much needed office space, making the Knesset look a little like a transition camp.
There were many new service units in the Knesset that required space, such as computer services, a large legal department that had grown from a handful of attorneys to more than 40, and the Knesset Research and Information Center (RIC), among others. The MKs, for whom offices had not been provided in the original building, and who had been crowded two in a room (at the time they had no staff whatsoever), also required more suitable accommodation. This was despite 44 new offices being provided in 1993 – an addition that also included a large auditorium – when the southern Negba wing was constructed (the planning started in 1981). However, that was insufficient. The committee rooms were also much too small and crowded, and provided insufficient office space for their chairmen and professional and secretarial staffs.
While the area of the 1966 building was around 20,000 square meters, the area of the 2008 building was 90,000 sq.m. The new extension is planned to reach 102,000 sq.m. (about half of it parking space). In other words, the total area will increase to 192,000 sq.m.
So why is the current extension required? First, it is believed that sooner or later the number of MKs will grow from 120 to at least 140.
THIS IS required because, due to the large number of ministers and deputy ministers in many of the recent governments, there are frequently no more than 80 MKs left to do the parliamentary work. That means each MK is a member of four or five committees, and has difficulty specializing and concentrating on a limited number of issues.
The only other way to deal with this problem would be to introduce a full “Norwegian Law” (or Alternate MK Law) that would oblige all MKs who join the government to resign from the Knesset and be replaced there by full-time MKs.
In addition, it is assumed that the number of parliamentary advisers (in the past they were called parliamentary assistants) that each MK can employ (at the Knesset’s expense) is expected to grow from three to five, even though the Knesset argues that it is preferable to increase the number of researchers in the RIC, who are all experts in a certain sphere, and almost all of them have master’s degrees and PhDs. I would add that even though MKs are supposed to use their staff exclusively for their parliamentary work, no one really checks whether this is done, or whether the MKs use them also for their party work, and even for private uses.
Other additions include a new committee section; offices for the Central Elections Committee (which is not part of the Knesset but resides in the Knesset building); a new gym (there was a gym in the Negba wing, which moved to the Kedma wing, and will now move – in a much more grandiose form – to the new wing, even though the number of MKs who use it is probably much less than half); a new visitors’ center; additional restaurants and snack bars; additional entrances into the complex; two additional structures for security checks for visitors; an enlargement of the Knesset guard building; and the construction of a new energy center.
How much will all this cost? Nobody really knows, but it is assumed the cost will reach hundreds of millions of shekels. With all the billions that have been spent without any planning or proper accounting since the COVID-19 pandemic fell upon us, this is mere peanuts.
I suppose the plan will undergo changes before the actual construction starts. Perhaps, if there will be a far-reaching change in the regime after the next elections, the order of priorities (including those of the Knesset) will change, and before attending to the physical requirements – real or exaggerated – of the Knesset, attention will be paid to what goes on inside the building. For example, making sure that MKs are aware of what their parliamentary job is, and what activities are not part of this job and should not take place in the Knesset building; how to improve the ethical standards and behavior of MKs, which has deteriorated in recent years; how to reduce the number of private members’ bills submitted by MKs, since in the final reckoning only 5% of these bills turn into law, and the rest simply involves wasted resources and energy; how to improve the Knesset’s oversight of the government (a relatively new unit established in the Knesset to coordinate parliamentary oversight was recently closed down); to add provisions that will prevent the almost complete shutdown of the Knesset after elections, in the event of a continuous failure to form a new government, for whatever reason.
After all this has been done, it will be possible to better assess what the Knesset requires in terms of space and what it does not, and how many trees should be cut down for this purpose.