The Knesset legitimation function – a temporary breakdown?

The Knesset is by no means a malfunctioning parliament, but that its legitimation function is of the highest importance.

The Knesset. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Knesset.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a book I recently published in Hebrew on the job of MKs, I included a chapter on their legitimation role.
The theory on the legitimation role of parliaments and MPs was first published in 1970 by Robert Packenham, based on the malfunctioning Congress of Brazil in the mid-1960s. According to Packenham, even parliaments that do not fulfill their tasks of legislation and oversight of the executive efficiently, can play an important role in legitimizing the government system in the eyes of the voters, by the mere fact that they convene regularly, play by the rules of the game, and their members present the needs and desires of their constituents.
In my book, I argued that the Knesset is by no means a malfunctioning parliament, but that its legitimation function is of the highest importance, especially in the case of two sectors – the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox religious community, which together constitute around 30% of the Israeli population. The parties that represent these two sectors do not hide the fact that they would like Israel to be a very different sort of state from what it is today – a Zionist, predominantly secular, Jewish and democratic state – but nevertheless accept the basic rules of the game of the political system, and thus ensure that their constituents do not feel totally estranged, which reduces social pressures and the danger of serious social unrest.
Since the beginning of the term of the 20th Knesset (March 2015), and especially since the police investigations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened the following year, cracks have appeared in the description of the Knesset as a well-functioning legislature. Due to the continuous delegitimization of the Arabs by right-wing circles (especially by Netanyahu himself, and several other senior Likudniks) and growing hostility to the ultra-Orthodox by some secular politicians (most markedly Avigdor Liberman, who advocates a Zionist liberal-secular government, “without the ultra-Orthodox and messianics”), there is a danger to the Arabs and ultra-Orthodox continuing to cooperate with the legitimation role of the Knesset.
I have always maintained that the Knesset is one of best-functioning parliaments in the world, which manages to operate relatively effectively under very complicated social and political circumstances. However, one cannot deny that since the elections to the 21st Knesset (April 2019), the Knesset is at an almost total standstill. There is no legislation, and except for the Finance Committee and the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, none of the regular Knesset committees have been manned or meet. Another committee that exists, but is unable to do very much in the absence of a new government, is the Arrangements Committee, whose job it is to get every new Knesset going after elections. Neither the 21st Knesset nor the 22nd have gone anywhere.
But it isn’t just the current political crisis that is to blame for the Knesset’s dysfunction. Throughout the 20th Knesset I kept hearing from senior members of the Knesset administration that the Knesset is no longer what it used to be, despite appearances. Furthermore, increasingly, MKs from the opposition have felt obliged to turn to the High Court of Justice to try to get things done that the Knesset did not enable them to achieve within the Knesset, be it to try to stop irregularities in budgetary transfers initiated by the Finance Ministry in the Knesset Finance Committee; to force the government to reenact the “Third Apartment Law,” which formed part of the Economic Arrangements Law for 2017-2018 due to procedural irregularities when the law was passed; or to introduce some changes into the Natural Gas Outline in the beginning of 2016, due to the fact that the outline seemed to benefit tycoons much more than the public at large.
I assume that once the current political crisis is resolved, in the post-Netanyahu era, the Knesset will start functioning normally again. However, just as certain procedural and constitutional changes will be necessary to prevent a recurrence of a political crisis similar to the current one, caused primarily by the existing law concerning prime ministers under indictment, so the Knesset will have to introduce procedural and constitutional changes that will prevent a recurrence of a complete standstill in its work, caused by the political crisis. None of this can happen as long as Netanyahu remains prime minister, since either directly or indirectly he is the main cause of the current mess.
BACK TO the legitimation role of the Arab and ultra-Orthodox religious parties. In the case of the Arab parties, unless the unbridled delegitimization campaign against them – started by Netanyahu himself in the course of the election campaign to the 20th Knesset (“Arab voters are rushing to the polling stations in droves”), and continued by him in the course of the elections campaign to the 22nd Knesset (“the Arabs want to do away with us all”) – stops, it is hard to imagine how the Arab parties and MKs will be able to continue their legitimation role. Neither the government’s welcome decision to pour billions of shekels into the Arab sector, nor MK Ayman Odeh’s courageous efforts to play a positive, cooperative role in the attempts to establish a government with the external support of the Arab parties following the elections to the 22nd Knesset (September 2019), will lead to any positive results, if the delegitimization of the Arabs from the highest quarters continues.
As to the delegitimization efforts directed against the ultra-Orthodox parties (though not against the ultra-Orthodox community as such), these, too, are dangerous, insofar as they could lead to a growing alienation from the state, and a regression from positive moves to integrate ultra-Orthodox Jews into the general society on terms acceptable to at least part of them.
One of the interesting developments since the beginning of the 20th Knesset has been growing political cooperation between the Arab and the ultra-Orthodox parties, which together command 29 seats (nearly one-quarter of the seats) in the 22nd Knesset. What will happen if both these groups will find themselves in opposition, should a “Zionist, liberal-secular” coalition be formed, is hard to guess.
FINALLY, A postscript relating to the November 26 demonstration in Tel Aviv, in support of Netanyahu and against the law enforcement agencies. It seems as though the crowd that attended the demonstration has never been exposed to legitimation activities by their representatives – i.e., to efforts by those they voted for, and the leader they worship, to accept and value the democratic system in the country, including the rule of law and equality before the law, though without giving up the right to fight for necessary changes and improvements in the system.
On the contrary, they feed on fiery speeches that delegitimize the police, the attorneys of the State Attorney’s Office, the attorney-general, the courts and the fourth estate (the media), and encourage them to go out to the streets to demonstrate against the prime minister being put on trial. Netanyahu’s speech on the day that the attorney-general announced that “with a heavy heart but wholeheartedly” he had decided to indict him, was exactly such a speech – totally unbefitting of the leader of “the only democracy in the Middle East.”