The Knesset today: Between worry and hope

I look anxiously at Israel's current state and hope that the Knesset will again be the glory of Israeli democracy.

Knesset building 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Knesset building 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
On May 15, 2008, there was a celebration in the Knesset. In honor of Israel’s Independence Day, US President George Bush paid a historic visit here and addressed the plenum.
As Speaker, I accompanied the American leader during his visit to the Knesset and I could not escape a sense of pride and euphoria – not only because of the status of the important guest, but also – and perhaps primarily – because of the respect he demonstrated for the Israeli legislature.
The president turned to the citizens of Israel in Hebrew from the Knesset podium and greeted them with “Yom Atzma’ut Sameah!” (“Happy Independence Day”). This blessing symbolized above all the power and relevance of the Knesset as Israel’s parliament.
That visit was an important milestone in the path of strengthening the Knesset’s status in the eyes of the Israeli public, and even in the eyes of the nations of the world.
During my tenure as Speaker, I worked tirelessly to maintain a strong and relevant legislature. The Knesset passed private members’ bills in opposition to the government’s position; the annual Economic Arrangements Law was cut drastically; I set the norm of a dress code for Knesset guests, and introduced the employment of disabled workers in the Knesset.
More world leaders who visited Israel asked to address the Knesset. It was clear to them that this was the real gateway to the recognition of Israel’s democracy and the platform to directly speaking to its citizens.
Unfortunately, I think the status of the Knesset, as well as its strength and prestige in the eyes of the public are now at an all-time low. In the 18th Knesset, the sensitive balance between the legislative and executive branches has been violated.
Today, nearly a third of elected representatives serve the executive branch as cabinet ministers and deputy ministers, and therefore only a few Knesset members participate in Knesset committees. This alarming fact has a far-reaching impact on the functioning and power of the Knesset; the number of MKs engaged with private members’ bills is low and they are weak.
The Economic Arrangements Law has returned to its historically inflated size and there is no effective supervision of the government’s work. On the contrary, some Knesset members serve as government assistants and promote controversial legislation that harms individual rights.
These negative processes are diminishing the image of the Knesset in the public eye. A clear majority of citizens do not respect their elected officials and don’t consider them a real address for raising their everyday needs to the public agenda.
Clear evidence of the weakening of the Knesset as the major arena for opinions and ideas can be found in the strengthening of non-parliamentary movements seeking to set the public agenda, using the media and especially social media.
The social protest last summer is a great example of this. The middle class went out to the streets wanting to change the priorities in the country – without convening the Knesset and without receiving a quick response to their demands.
There was much criticism about the conduct of MKs in the Knesset and the heated exchanges among them. There are many complaints in the 18th Knesset about such behavior, but when it is unable to create checks and balances against the executive branch, and in the absence of a clear plan to strengthen the legislature, update the hearing procedures and improve its image – no wonder the deterioration continues.
The situation upsets me. These days, when image is sometimes more important than essence, I know that the positive activity of many MKs does not receive worthy media attention. Many members of Knesset see their work as a holy mission.
Despite everything, though, I’m optimistic. A strong Israeli democracy cannot exist without a strong and worthy Knesset. As an emissary of the public, and as someone who once led this great legislature, I believe that we will return the Knesset to its proper status.
On the week in which the Knesset celebrated its birthday (Tu Bishvat), I look anxiously at its current state, and voice the hope that it will again be the glory of Israeli democracy.
The writer was the Speaker of the 17th Knesset, and is currently the faction head of Kadima.