Ongoing crises in Knesset-government relations

Think About It: Lapid was constantly heckled, and wasn’t given the opportunity to finish a single sentence.

Lapid addressing the knesset 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Lapid addressing the knesset 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The announcement just over a week ago by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, following his maiden speech in the Knesset, that henceforth he would be delivering important policy speeches outside the Knesset, was hardly surprising.
As I wrote in my column last week, Lapid, who represented the government in answering three of the six motions of no confidence tabled by the opposition on April 22, was constantly heckled, and wasn’t given the opportunity to finish a single sentence. This despite the fact that it is customary, both in the Knesset and in parliaments abroad, not to interrupt maiden speeches.
As was to be expected, Lapid’s announcement was severely criticized as demonstrating contempt for the Knesset. Similar criticism was heard when in December 2003 then-prime minister Ariel Sharon decided to announce his unilateral Gaza disengagement plan from the podium of the Herzliya Conference. In June 2009, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered his “two-state” speech at Bar-Ilan University, and less than a year later he delivered another important policy speech in front of Congress in Washington.
It should be noted that Knesset members, like their colleagues abroad, are allowed to heckle, within the limits permitted by the rules of procedure. Furthermore, there is almost nothing to stop politicians delivering speeches on whatever they please, and wherever they please. Nevertheless, this is a typical situation where the saying “don’t be right, be wise” ought to apply.
Heckling is not unique to Israel. Leaving aside parliaments where heckling occasionally gets out of control and deteriorates into shameful brawls (e.g. Russia, South Korea, Taiwan and Ukraine), even if heckling does not turn into fist-fights, it can nevertheless turn into a nuisance that disrupts parliament’s work and dishonors parliament in the eyes of the public. Its main achievement is to gain media attention for the perpetrators.
Last summer the opposition party in India (the Bharatiya Janata Party) actually managed to cause the total shutting down of all parliamentary business by means of heckling. The BJP’s excuse was allegations of government corruption, and its intention was apparently early elections (elections are due in 2014). However, public opinion did not take kindly to the interruption of parliament’s work at a time of serious economic problems, and the BJP’s tactics backfired – at least temporarily. Nevertheless, parliament’s work continues to be regularly interrupted, despite the fact that the government coalition has a workable majority.
What can one do to prevent heckling disrupting the work of parliament? In some cases the problem can be solved simply by the Speaker of the House assuming control, and using the full powers granted him by the rules of procedure. This is exactly what the 35-year-old Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons – Andrew Scheer – has done since assuming the position in 2010.
When Scheer was elected to the position he announced that he was planning to play a much more assertive role in the House in order to stop excessive heckling.
In June 2012, for example, after MPs from the government side (Conservative – to which he himself belongs) exaggerated with interruptions of a speech by the Leader of the Opposition (New Democrats), he announced that the time wasted would “have to be made up somewhere else.” For the following Question Time he removed from the list of speakers a Conservative MP, who had signed up to pose a (friendly) question to the government. All concerned got the message.
What are the chances of an Israeli Speaker acting on his/her own initiative with similar determination? Not that high, I suspect. During his two terms as Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin did his best to keep order in the House, and protect Israel’s fragile democracy, but never seriously confronted the problem of excessive heckling (which admittedly, never reached the extremes of the Indian parliament, or even those of Canada). The chances of the new, less experienced and much gentler Speaker, Yuli Edelstein, being more assertive than Rivlin are slim.
So are we stuck in a situation in which MKs heckle to excess, and ministers deliver their major speeches outside the Knesset? Not necessarily.
I believe the time is ripe for the Knesset and the government to reach a package deal that will introduce some major changes in the mutual relations between the two authorities, improve the functioning of both, and strengthen the democratic fortitude of the state.
Back in February 2009, just before the elections to the 18th Knesset, the then-government secretary, Oved Yehezkel, and the secretary-general of the Knesset, Eyal Yinon, presented prime minister Ehud Olmert and Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik with a proposal for such a package deal.
The proposal dealt primarily with the issue of legislation, and especially excessive private members’ bills; important government bills getting stuck in the Committee stage of legislation; and the outrageous Economic Arrangements Bill, that is attached to each state budget, and constitutes an attempt by the government to circumvent proper legislative procedures.
The proposal suggested the Knesset undertake to reduce the Economic Arrangements Bill to an absolute minimum (i.e. amendments of existing laws that are absolutely necessary for the budget to be implemented), and that the Knesset, in cooperation with the government, act to reduce the number of private members’ bills with no chance of actually becoming law (it should be noted that only around five percent of all private members’ bills submitted are approved), but that nevertheless cause a major waste of precious time both in the ministerial committee on legislation and the Knesset administrative services.
The proposal was shelved after neither the 18th Knesset nor Netanyahu’s second government showed any interest in it. Perhaps the time has come not only to submit the proposal afresh, but to add to it the issue of a more significant participation of ministers in plenary and committee meetings, in return for more stringent rules regarding heckling.
I know that opposition MKs regard unlimited heckling as an important parliamentary tool; that most backbenchers regard the submission of private members’ bills as a major part of their job as legislators; that the Finance Ministry has strong arguments for why the Economic Arrangements Bill is vital for structural changes in the economy; and that our ministers have very full schedules, which do not leave much free time for long sojourns in the Knesset. Nevertheless, the time seems ripe for some significant changes in the rules of the political game that they are all engaged in.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.