Think About It: The human makeup of the 21st Knesset

It is customary to bad-mouth the Knesset due to the behavior and conduct of some of its members, who have vulgarized its proceedings, and lack even a minimum of decorum.

House committee approves bill to disperse the Knesset, December 26th, 2018. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
House committee approves bill to disperse the Knesset, December 26th, 2018.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Analyses of the elections and their results usually concentrate on the questions of who will form the next government after the elections, and who will be members of the inevitable coalition (Israel has never had a government that is not a coalition). No one talks about the human makeup of the next Knesset, which will determine how the new Knesset will look and operate.
Last Monday the Knesset celebrated its 70th anniversary. It is customary to bad-mouth the Knesset due to the behavior and conduct of some of its members, who have vulgarized its proceedings, and lack even a minimum of decorum.
However, one is inclined to forget that behind the rather rowdy and chaotic plenum and committee rooms, which we frequently view thanks to the services of the Knesset Channel, there is a pretty solid parliament, which functions much more effectively than many other democratic parliaments in the world (including Congress in the US, and the House of Commons in the UK – both of which are a mess), and is even positively unique in many respects.
We are inclined to say that “there is no such thing in the world” when we speak of disturbing phenomena such as the Economic Arrangements Law, or “special funding” for MKs, which are anything but unique to Israel. However, we are quite unique with regards to several phenomena that we can be proud of.
For example, to the best of my knowledge, we and Lithuania are the only democratic parliaments in the world that absolutely prohibit their MPs from holding additional jobs or performing paid activities. In almost all parliaments today in the world, MPs get significant salaries (+ expenses), and the majority of MPs regard their work in parliament as a full-time job. However, there is nothing to stop them from holding additional paid occupations elsewhere. In the UK, for example, back in 2018, of 643 sitting MPs, 119 (18.5%) had regular, paid outside commitments. Some of these spent more time out of Parliament than in it, and earned much more than their parliamentary salary (over £77,000 annually + expenses).
Believe it or not, the Knesset also has stricter rules of ethics than most other parliaments in the world, and the rules are applied quite firmly and effectively.
Though private legislation (private members’ bills) in Israel is not free of problems, including its haphazard nature, MKs are much more involved in serious legislative activities than their counterparts in other parliamentary democracies (though not presidential systems), and some such legislation is of the highest importance (most of the environmental legislation and much of the social legislation in Israel originated in PMBs).
THE PROBLEM with the Knesset is not to be found in its foundations and basic modus operandi, but in the nature of part of its membership.
In an electoral system such as that which exists in Israel – absolute proportional representation, in which the representatives are not directly elected, and the country is not divided into electoral districts – the parties have much more control over the makeup of the parliament than in any other system. The parties present lists of candidates in a prearranged order, and the candidates placed in the slots, up to the number of seats that the party will gain in the election, become MPs.
Each party has its own system for selecting its candidates. Some do a better job than others. However, one criteria that is almost never taken into account – neither in Israel nor in any other democracy – is whether the candidate is likely to contribute to the smooth, effective and respectable working of the parliament.
One could say that the problem is that there is no job description for the job of the MP, and that in the absence of a job description (and there is no formal job description in any democratic parliament of what an MP is expected to do), it is impossible to select suitable candidates.
But even if a job description did exist, the problem is a serious dissonance between what the parliament requires in order to function smoothly and efficiently, and what the separate parties feel they require in order to get elected and operate effectively, either in government or in opposition.
In the Israeli system each party is concerned with presenting the most attractive list it can possibly conjure. In many parties, potential loyalty to the party line after the elections is also a factor. The system under which candidates are selected does not necessarily ensure the human quality of the resulting list.
For example, in Yesh Atid the list is selected exclusively by its leader, Yair Lapid, and in the last two elections he did an impressive job. Moshe Kahlon, the leader of Kulanu, who also selected his list personally, managed to present an impressive list of personalities, but five of the most prominent members of his list have simply left him – at least three for other parties.
In the Labor Party the results of primaries for the list results in a well-balanced list and an impressive array of candidates, who then turn into an impressive team of diligent MKs, even though, as a party with aspirations to return to power, the results are much less impressive.
In the Likud, primaries for the list have resulted in a progressive deterioration in the human quality of the candidates selected, which I dare say has made a negative contribution to the image of the Knesset and how it executes its functions. However, in terms of loyalty to the party leadership in general and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular, the Likud parliamentary group excels, with several exceptions, such as MK Oren Hazan on the scandalous, dysfunctional level, and MK Bennie Begin on the liberal-right ideological level.
In the case of the Likud in the outgoing 20th Knesset, another major problem has been that because there were so many new MKs elected, the absolute majority of Likud MKs left to run the show in the Knesset were first-time MKs, many of them with very little respect for parliamentary traditions, decorum, rules and ethical norms.
The Likud speaker of the 20th Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, was one of the few exceptions in terms of his seniority and respect for protocol and norms, but his own power was eroded due to his occasional clashes with Netanyahu, who he felt had contributed to the deterioration in the status of the Knesset.
IRRESPECTIVE OF who emerges victorious in the approaching elections, I am very curious to see whether there will be an improvement in the quality of MKs elected. Since I believe that there will be no major change in the sort of MKs elected in the religious and Arab parties, and assume that Israel Resilience, Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, Kulanu and Gesher (if the two latter parties get through the qualifying threshold) will bring to the Knesset an array of excellent-to-reasonable representatives, the main unknown at the moment is the makeup of the Likud list to the 21st Knesset.
Since Netanyahu is inclined to see in the Knesset a bothersome nuisance rather than one of the pillars of the democratic system, I don’t believe he is really interested in making the Knesset more effective. However, it is to be hoped that he will act behind the scenes to ensure that the likes of Hazan, who has been a constant embarrassment to the Likud, will not be elected, and to support candidates who are not only loyal to himself but individuals who can reverse the trend of the Knesset’s vulgarization, to which, sadly, the two last coalition chairmen – David Bitan and David Amsalem – have contributed.