THINK ABOUT IT: The Knesset’s public image

The Knesset building in Givat Ram, Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Knesset building in Givat Ram, Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
On December 15 the Knesset embarked on a TV campaign aimed at improving its public image.
The campaign concentrates on the Knesset’s legislative activity, focusing on laws passed by the Knesset on social issues that are not politically controversial and therefore enjoyed wall to wall parliamentary support. The campaign also touches on the Knesset’s transparency by means of its website.
The reality into which this campaign plunged is well reflected by the reactions to an article that appeared in TheMarker on the subject. Among the online reactions: “This campaign would be superfluous if we had normal MKs”; “It is audacity that corrupt legislators waste the citizen’s money to convince him that they are acting to his benefit”; “The campaign should be financed from the MKs’ salaries”; “The presenter said in the film that the Knesset is attentive: hahahahaha.”
The Knesset is not the only parliament in the democratic world whose image is in the gutter. For several decades public trust in parliaments and their members has been deteriorating. This is due to the spread of media reporting, and the media’s inclination to focus on scandals and dirty politics; the post-industrial society in which the population is increasingly cynical and disbelieving; MPs’ occasionally being caught behaving in a scandalous manner and even breaking the law; the fact that parliaments are objectively in a crisis, resulting from the fact that they have not moved with the times, and many of their activities and procedures are anachronistic.
On the basis of research I am presently engaged in I would add that the crisis also results from the fact that much of the public is ignorant of what parliaments and their members are meant to be doing.
In Israel one can add to the general malady the fact that norms of “it isn’t done” seem totally absent; a prime minister who doesn’t hide his contempt for the Knesset and does everything in his power to bypass it; an opposition that rarely makes an effort to bridle its attacks on the government; and a group of vulgar, contemptible MKs who should never have been elected in the first place, but were nevertheless democratically elected by citizens who view them as their authentic representatives.
Personally I believe that the Knesset, with all its shortcomings and fiascoes, is a fascinating place which, as the current campaign is trying to portray, performs many of its functions properly. But most importantly: it genuinely reflects the Israeli population and the problems it confronts. If the Knesset is a mess – so is Israeli society, and the battles that are being fought within its walls are authentic reflections of those that are being fought in the Israeli society, without embellishment.
In fact, the Knesset reflects most of the views and points of view current in society, and if sometimes nothing seems to move it is because we are so divided that no point of view or opinion commands a majority – not that we should annex the territories, not that we should seek to end the occupation, not that the law of the land should be the Halacha, not that there should be a complete separation of religion and state, not that the Supreme Court should better reflect society and not that the Supreme Court should remain a liberal island in the midst of a wave of dangerous anti-democratic sentiment.
No wonder that it looks messy.
Perhaps if our MKs would embrace British understatement, were a little less blunt and more polite in the way they express themselves, the Knesset’s image would improve. However, we should be aware of the fact that rates of trust in Parliament in the UK are no higher and perhaps even lower than they are in Israel, and the scandals that have come to light in Westminster in recent decades are much worse than anything that has come to light here.
In fact, I would go so far as state that Israeli MKs do much more parliamentary work than their British colleagues, many of whom are inclined to spend more time in their constituencies than in Westminster. In addition, like legislators in almost all democracies, British MPs are allowed to hold lucrative second jobs (unlike our MKs), and are not inclined to give up this privilege. Furthermore, as scandalous as some of the items for which MKs file for Knesset reimbursement are, they are peanuts compared to what the MPs’ expenses scandal revealed in the UK back in 2009.
What I am saying is that on average our MKs are no better nor worse than their counterparts abroad, that some are better and some are worse, that there are a few villains and a few saints and that the majority are somewhere in the middle – rather gray characters trying to stand out, gain some headlines in the media, get reelected, and leave a mark.
I can add (on the basis of research I conducted in the past) that all efforts to improve the image of parliaments in various countries have failed dismally. These efforts have included the introduction of serious reforms in the way parliament works; attempts to prove that the commercial media is inclined to portray a picture of parliament that is unbalanced in the direction of the yellow; and educational activities within their precincts.
I certainly favor reforms – and there have been some impressive reforms in the Knesset, such as the establishment of the Knesset Research and Information Center in 2000, which provides the MKs and the Knesset committees with excellent independent information and data; a Knesset website which provides more information than most other parliamentary websites (I do not know of any other parliament that publishes the full minutes of its committees – in fact, most parliaments do not record the proceedings of their committees!); and rules of ethics (first adopted in 1983) which are more elaborate and better enforced than those in other parliaments, and this despite the fact that new rules of ethics proposed by the Zamir Committee back in 2006 were never adopted.
I also favor activities designed to educate and inform all sectors and age groups about what the Knesset does – and I am a great fan of the Knesset TV channel, Channel 99.
However, I have no illusions that any of this has any effect on the Knesset’s image, or that the current campaign will make a difference.
I dare say that even if the Oren Hazans are thrown out of the Knesset, or forced to resign, and important Knesset debates are held peacefully without any outbursts and mutual recriminations, little if anything will change regarding the Knesset’s image. Let us be honest: how many people would bother to find out what is going on in the Knesset if it weren’t for Hazan’s fiascoes? If the prime minister and leader of the opposition didn’t exchange dramatic verbal blows? How many people bother to listen to the proceedings in the Knesset plenum, which can be viewed in full on Channel 99? How many people bother to read the text of the bills submitted to the Knesset, or the Knesset’s rules of procedure, that are all available on the Knesset website? How many people realize that the minutes of Knesset plenary and committee proceedings may be viewed online? I sometimes wonder if anyone but myself bothers to read them.
I am not saying that the Knesset is perfect, or free of shortcomings. What I am saying is that perhaps the problem isn’t the Knesset, but us.
The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee.