Reform the Knesset

The debate is a step in the right direction, but also indicates MKs are unwilling to go the whole way.

knesset 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
knesset 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
On Monday, as all eyes turned toward Annapolis, the Knesset turned toward reforming itself. Debate began this week on a reform package backed by the Knesset House Committee and Speaker Dalia Itzik that seeks to reassert the legislature's standing opposite the executive branch, which along with the judicial, is perceived as severely encroaching on legislative authority. In principle a more forceful parliament cannot but be a boon for Israeli democracy since the people's elected representatives are the government's fundamental source of power and legitimacy. Yet over the years Israel's legislative body had been rigorously undercut by a domineering cabinet, whose own members most often hail from the Knesset, but cannot wait to be promoted to higher office. The ministers officiously belittle their parliamentary duties, manipulate legislation and imperiously ignore their less politically adroit colleagues. Concomitantly, the struggle continues between an interventionist Supreme Court which disqualifies legislation and the Knesset, which sometimes reenacts portions of disqualified laws, as is commonplace in most democracies. Indeed this is the essence of the checks and balances which allow each branch of government recourse to overcome controls and constraints from another branch. In addition, the Knesset's lowly stature is in no small measure exacerbated by the MKs' own abysmal work ethics, thereby triggering a vicious cycle that further undermines our parliament's standing. In response, Knesset secretary Eyal Yinon and Itzik have been hashing out reform proposals for months with an eye to instigate an overhaul of the Knesset's functioning and oblige the executive to obey the rules of the game. Some recommendations are not new but have never been implemented. This is the case with a question-time proposal, which would set up a weekly framework in which each minister in turn - including the premier - would be summoned to the plenum to answer as many as 20 pre-submitted queries, along with follow-up questions that would arise in real time. This rotation would make it impossible for ministers to escape direct grilling or to send another minister in their stead to deflect Knesset hassles, as is currently the widespread practice. Additionally, as is now the convention regarding the prime minister, the proposals would make it mandatory for any minister summoned by 40 MKs to appear in Knesset plenary session. No individual minister, however, would be called upon in this fashion more than once in eight weeks. Other proposals are aimed at improving parliamentary conscientiousness. MKs who submit queries but do not show up to hear ministerial replies would be cited for contempt and strictly penalized. Special sessions would be cancelled if half the MKs who requested them are absent. Committee sessions and factional gatherings would be prohibited when the plenum is in session, thereby obviating the most common excuse for MKs' failure to attend. As good, necessary and greatly overdue as all the above sound, even these reforms are patently not enough. Even if adopted in full by the plenum in a few months, assuming all goes to plan, these proposals on their own are insufficient to pull the Knesset from the mire in which, to no negligible extent, its own slackness plunged it. To be sure, if passed, these reforms would help alleviate the Knesset's woes. But the Knesset is also plagued by maladies which the overhaul ignores. The Knesset, for instance, is inundated by frivolous private members' bills which gum up the works, though they have no chance of surviving so much as a preliminary reading. There is also a surfeit of committees, with most MKs listed as members in an extensive variety of them. These committees schedule sittings simultaneously, equipping truant MKs with pretexts to play hooky. Committee membership figures in many cases are highly inflated, helping MKs to get away with doing nothing. The new proposals make no provision for recording participation in committee work. Interested voters should be able to easily determine not only each MK's attendance record in plenum debates and votes, but their participation rate in committee meetings. The debate over reform is itself a belated step in the right direction but, distressingly, its substance also indicates that the MKs are unwilling to go the whole way, impose more stringent discipline on themselves and truly redeem Israel's demoralized and browbeaten legislature. We hope these reforms pass and are implemented, and they are harbingers of more to come.