Tu Bishvat – the Knesset’s 62nd anniversary

When evaluating our parliament, we should distinguish between the institution and its members.

Today, Tu Bishvat, the Knesset will celebrate the 62nd anniversary of its first sitting after the country’s first general elections. According to the Retirement Age Law, the retirement age for females born between May 1947 and December 1949 is 62. Given its lack of popularity, there are those who might wish that true to its gender (in Hebrew), the Knesset should retire, and thus rid us all of its bothersome (some would say scandalous) activities.
I beg to differ. In my opinion the Knesset – with all its shortcomings – is a well-functioning institution which well represents the country’s heterogeneous social makeup while offering sufficient checks and balances to neutralize some of the worst proposals of its members.

It should be noted that parliaments in almost all democratic states suffer from lack of public trust. Only political parties “enjoy” greater public contempt.
The situation here is no worse than the average elsewhere, and while parliamentarism, based as it is on principles elaborated in the 19th century (when the political reality was very different), is in a certain state of crisis, its condition is far from critical.
When evaluating the Knesset, we should distinguish between the institution (whose job is primarily to legislate, supervise the government and debate issues on the public agenda), and its members, whose conduct might frequently be repulsive, but who were elected by us and thus represent who and what we are. Let us not forget the heterogeneity of our society; many (if not most) of whose members do not really understand the basic principles of democracy, have racist inclinations, and occasionally have some pretty wacky ideas. Yet, among Israel’s 120 MKs are some excellent individuals, from various parts of the political spectrum, who represent all of us with honor and do their job honestly and diligently.
However, what I should like to laud is the Knesset as an institution. It manages to pass laws that are almost always meticulously drafted, with the active participation of its Legal Department and Research and Information Center (with their highly qualified professional staffs), after serious deliberation in which all points of view are given an airing (though some – represented by professional lobbyists – have a louder voice than others). Some of us might not be happy with the result, but given the nature of our society, there can never be a situation in which everyone is satisfied.
This is the nature of democracy.
IN TERMS of supervising the work of the government, there is room for improvement, but it should be recalled that this is a parliamentary democracy, and by definition the government must command a majority in parliament to survive. Nevertheless, though the MKs from the coalition are expected to support the government’s positions, the government can never take its majority for granted, and must take into account not only the positions of the opposition, but also those of the coalition backbenchers, who are frequently displeased with the government’s policy.
In terms of Knesset-government relations, there is also room for improvement. The Knesset must do more to stop the Finance Ministry’s efforts to curtail its supervisory role over the budget (especially by introducing biennial rather than annual budgets) and the economic arrangements bill, and to further limit the number of private member’s bills – the overwhelming majority of which (approximately 1,000 every year) do not even reach preliminary reading, and merely clog the legislative system. This would free parliamentary time for dealing with urgent government bills in an appropriate manner.
As to the conduct and ethics of MKs – the focus of frequent criticism by the public – the Knesset is currently reviewing the Rules of Ethics for MKs (first introduced in the early 1980s), with the goal of making them clearer, improving the way complaints are dealt with, and increasing the variety of sanctions that can be imposed.
It should be noted that the Knesset is the only parliament that prohibits its members from holding any additional paying position, and strictly limits what they can do on a voluntary basis – all so they will concentrate on their parliamentary duties while avoiding even a semblance of conflict of interest.
All in all the Knesset, and those it represents, have more cause to be proud than ashamed.
Happy anniversary.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.