Requiem for the 18th Knesset

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Upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement of early elections, IDI Researcher Dr. Ofer Kenig reviews the performance of the 18th Knesset and wonders how it will be judged by history.

Yesterday (October 9, 2012), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced early elections. Although the elections for the 19th Knesset were scheduled to take place in October 2013, they will take place in January 2013. This provides an opportunity to review the nature of the 18th Knesset and to wonder how history will judge it.

It appears that history will look back on this Knesset with mixed reviews. Those who choose political stability as the defining criteria will undoubtedly see the outgoing Knesset in a very positive light. Despite the fact that the elections for the next Knesset have been advanced, by the time the elections roll around, this Knesset will have nearly completed four years; as such, it will have served longer than any Knesset in two decades. This Knesset will also be remembered as the Knesset that supported one of the most stable governments in the history of the State of Israel. With the exception of Ehud Barak's break off from the Labor party in early 2011, and Kadima's short-lived stay in the government in the spring of 2012—two events that did not have a pronounced impact on the composition of cabinet ministers—the coalitional basis of the government remained stable and strong, without any real threats. There were almost no significant coalition crises, and by the time the elections take place, almost all of the Ministers will have completed an uninterrupted term of four years in office. Lastly, in three weeks time, Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who stood at the helm, will pass Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir z"l and will become the prime minister with the second longest cumulative time in office—second only to David Ben-Gurion.

In contrast, people who choose to widen their perspective and to focus on the Knesset's work and conduct are liable to form a completely different view of the 18th Knesset. For example, they will point to the loss of the delicate and important balance between the executive branch and the legislative branch. The current government included two thirds of the members of Knesset, leaving the last third with weakened ability of oversight. At the same time, the Knesset lost its legislative restraint and flooded the system with private legislation.

In addition, these people will point to the erosion that took place in the rules of the game and the rules of the house. The 18th Knesset was characterized by a spirit of contempt and disregard for the opposition. This could be seen, for example, from the controversial appointment of Uri Ariel—who theoretically was a representative of the opposition but de-facto supported the government line—to the Committee for Judicial Appointments and later to serve as chair of the State Control Committee. These appointments broke one of the most important conventions of the Knesset. Another example is the Knesset's efforts to pass legislation mandating a two-year state budget, which neutralized one of the important tools of the Knesset and especially of the opposition: oversight of the formulation of the State budget. The attempt to retroactively void the Bar Association's representatives to the Judicial Appointment Committee is another example of disregard for the rules of the game. In addition, the 18th Knesset witnessed several events that did not bring honor to parliamentary discourse, deteriorating to both verbal and physical violence. One member of Knesset doused another with a glass of water, and derisive comments, curses, vulgar language, and insults that included sexual innuendo were hurled from the podium.

The 18th Knesset will also be remembered as one that passed "personal" laws that were designed to impact specific appointments or to stymie the entry of new players into Israeli politics. The Mofaz Law, the Grunis Law, and the Lapid Law are examples of unsettling laws that were motivated by short-term goals of this nature. In fairness, this Knesset did not begin this inappropriate practice; it simply continued it. Similarly, the political maneuvering and "stinky tricks" that characterized this Knesset—such as Ehud Barak's departure from the Labor party, the Prime Minister's attempts to split Kadima, the law to disperse the Knesset that passed its first reading and was then shelved at the last minute in the middle of the night, the rapid appointment and disbanding of the Plesner Committee—were not invented by this Knesset. The fact that such phenomena also characterized other Israeli parliaments, however, does not speak well of the outgoing Knesset.

Perhaps more than anything, the 18th Knesset will be remembered as a Knesset that was characterized by a spirit of destructiveness and intolerance. This found expression in the spate of bills that sought to limit criticism of the government and the State, to restrict freedom of speech, and to harm the Arab minority. Legislative initiatives such as the Associations Law, the Boycott Law, the Nakba Law, the Admissions Committee Law, the Loyalty Law, the Muezzin Law, and the law forbidding the use of Nazi symbols in protests—some of which actually passed—are examples of this wave of legislation that flooded the Knesset, reflecting a narrow and procedural understanding of democracy that sees majority rule as the end all and be all.

Lastly, it is impossible to review the 18th Knesset without assessing the way in which it responded to events and developments that took place during its term. Three of these are worthy of mention: the way the Knesset related to the peace process with the Palestinians, the global economic crisis, and the social protest of the summer of 2011. (It may be noted that the Knesset's response to the nuclearization of Iran has not been included. That is because although it often dominated the public agenda, this issue, for the most part, was not part of the ongoing work of the Knesset.) Regarding the peace process, it may be argued that the current Knesset and government took less initiative concerning the Palestinian issue than any Knesset and government in the last two decades. Sometimes it even seemed as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was no longer on the agenda and was of absolutely no concern to Israel's decision-makers, with the exception of seasonal escalations affecting the security situation in Southern Israel. The Knesset's response to the world economic crisis is subject to different interpretations; some praise it while other's lament it. It appears, however, that in this area, the government and the Knesset behaved responsibly and left the state economy in a reasonable condition, if not better. The social protest led to the establishment of the Trajtenberg Committee and to some benefits designed to bring down the cost of living for the middle class; for this, the 18th Knesset can be commended for responding to the needs of the public. However, many still feel that not enough was done.

A closing comment: The 18th Knesset was the first Knesset of the last several parliaments that did not engage in any kind of significant discussion of the constitutional process. The Knesset is still the institution that is entrusted with the important task of enacting a Constitution. Given some of the phenomena that characterized the outgoing Knesset, it would appear that the need for a Constitution has never been greater. 

Dr. Ofer Kenig is an IDI researcher who heads the Political Parties Research Team of IDI's Forum for Political Reform in Israel.