Will the ‘new politics’ bring better government?

It will be interesting to see what emerges from the current Knesset deliberations.

Knesset 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
Knesset 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
The previous national elections saw campaign promises to limit the size of government and to increase its stability by reducing the number of ministers and the number of coalition parties. Two bills have been introduced to make good on these pledges, one by Yisrael Beytenu MKs, the other by members of Yesh Atid.
Having drafted a constitution a few years back, together with others from the Institute for Zionist Strategies, I was interested to learn what is happening with this effort in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that serious and responsible deliberations are being conducted under the chairmanship of Likud Beytenu MK David Rotem. The bills contain a number of changes intended to: increase government continuity, including rules making votes of no-confidence harder to initiate, more difficult to pass, and contingent on the designation of a successor; weaken the causal relationship between the government’s failure to pass a budget and its automatic downfall; make it harder (even impossible) for a minority of a Knesset faction to break off into a separate faction; and more.
But, predictably, in the four hearings on the two bills held to date, the attention has been focused mainly on the much-heralded campaign promises.
The discussion already makes clear what one has learned to expect: the solutions proffered do not necessarily yield the results promised.
Thus, the proposal to limit the number of ministers to 19 (18 plus the prime minister) is accompanied by a rule limiting each minister to one ministry. Yet, there are far more ministries than ministers even now, in the present, modestly-sized government (Naftali Bennett heads three).
Moreover, the proposals also seek to limit the number of deputy ministers to four, and some argue that deputy ministers often help the Knesset supervise the government because they are available to testify and to respond to committee inquiries whereas some ministers are genuinely too busy to devote the necessary time (defense and finance, for example).
One proposal seeks to restrict the number of ministers-without-portfolio to one, yet in times of emergency, it can be useful, even necessary, to form a national emergency coalition by including the opposition in the government [war] cabinet without disrupting executive functions by shuffling sitting ministers (e.g., Begin and Sapir in 1967).
Since, by definition, any future government will command the support of a majority of Knesset Members and will easily be able to overturn the new limitations on the number of ministers as an inconvenient impediment to formation, one proposal seeks to require a super-majority to change the limitations, so that they will not be meaningless formulations.
But others argue that imposition of the requirement of a super-majority for repeal or amendment is anti-democratic and dangerous. How can a simple and even modest majority of those voting pass a law requiring 61, 70, 80 (or theoretically 120) MKs to repeal or amend? This was the case in 1992 when 32 MKs voted for the Basic Law: Human Dignity, which requires a vote of 61 to amend or repeal. (In philosophy 101, we used to ask whether the omnipotent God can create a stone He could not lift.).
Yet, it remains true that a more modest government can govern more effectively, and just as importantly, a restricted number of ministers leaves a greater number of MKs free to legislate and to supervise the policies and performance of the executive more effectively. (The proposed legislation would free up 19 members compared to the previous government.) PERHAPS THE most controversial change being considered is to increase the necessary threshold of election from to percent to 4% of the vote. All votes for parties which do not pass the threshold are not counted and are thrown out, so that increasing the threshold percentage can dramatically reduce the number of parties for which one can vote with assurance that one’s vote will count.
This makes it very hard for new, small, and splinter parties to attract enough support to reach the Knesset and is intended to spur support for the larger parties.
Using the 2013 elections as a basis for analysis, imposing the proposed 4% threshold yields four fewer parties in the Knesset, unless the smaller parties had combined among themselves or with others. But if one makes the reasonable assumption that the new rule will influence voting behavior, the number could reasonably be six parties.
Clearly, these parties will combine among themselves and with others if a higher threshold is adopted, so that there will be fewer (and larger) parties in the next government. An extreme example of this is Turkey, which in 2002 increased its blocking threshold to 10% and ended up with just two main parties (three today).
Behind all this is the notion that having larger and therefore fewer parties would make it easier for the prime minister-designate to form a coalition and maintain it, since he would need to negotiate with fewer parties. But some argue that the opposite is true, most notably Prof. Avraham Diskin, who plays an influential role in the current Knesset Committee deliberations.
He argues that a larger number of smaller parties gives the prime minister greater flexibility to form a variety of coalitions. The classic example is the recent elections. Had Bayit Yehudi and the National Union not combined, it is possible that Prime Minister Netanyahu could have put together a government with Labor and/or Shas without being stymied by a Lapid-Bennett treaty.
It seems to me that those who advocate raising the threshold must couple the change with a requirement that parties which unite before the election cannot splinter for the duration of the Knesset term. One of the proposed provisions extends such a rule for two years following the start of the Knesset but exempts the case of parties which combine on the ticket but do not actually merge. (This is what Likud and Yisrael Beytenu did in the previous election, and there is already widespread speculation that they will soon separate).
But this is not enough if the benefit from the larger parties is to be realized.
The law should apply to parties that do not merge and it should be in effect for the entire duration of the Knesset. Another requirement worth considering is the strengthening of the tools for party discipline. We recently witnessed the exercise of party discipline when Yesh Atid suspended MK Adi Kol from certain parliamentary privileges for abstaining on the first round of voting on this very legislation being discussed.
But the tools for party discipline, which are weak and cannot effectively be applied to established party figures, need to be expanded and strengthened if the newly (re)enlarged parties are to bring greater stability.
It will be interesting to see what emerges from the current Knesset deliberations. But it is gratifying that parties are exhibiting a sense of obligation to fulfill election promises.The author, an attorney in Israel and the US, is the founding president of the Institute for Zionist Strategies.