Where has the Oppositon gone?

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Which party does not want to hold the reins of power? Which member of Knesset (MK) does not want to be appointed minister? It is a given that no-one enters political life with the aim of spending it in the desert of opposition. However, it seems that in the Israeli Knesset, particularly in the current Knesset, the word “opposition” has become a form of insult. One sign of this has been the wave of retirements of MKs, mainly from the opposition—from Shai Piron, who served as Minister of Education in the previous Knesset; via Danny Atar, who preferred the job of Chairman of the Jewish National Fund; to the recent examples of Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, who went back into academia, Erel Margalit, who preferred to return to the business world, and Zehava Gal-On, who announced that she wanted to focus on party activities.

In a democratic regime, the opposition has two essential roles to play: to offer an alternative to the serving government; and to oversee its actions. But here in Israel, the opposition is small, weak, and divided. There are both political and institutional reasons for this situation. Politically speaking, there is a tendency in Israel to form large coalitions, leaving a small opposition—historically, with an average size of just 37% of the Knesset seats. In addition, the opposition comprises several parties, which tend to fight between themselves—over ideological issues, as is currently the case between the Joint Arab List and the other opposition parties; or over personal issues, for example, who should lead the alternative block, as it currently the case between Yesh Atid and the Zionist Union. It is true that there were always internal struggles within the Israeli opposition, but since the 1990s, this has become more and more pronounced, as the power of the major parties has declined.

The Israeli opposition also suffers from a lack of tools relative to other oppositions in the world, and even relative to the tools it held in the past. Thus, for example, no-confidence motions have in recent years become meaningless, as they no longer require a simple majority as in the past, but rather an absolute majority of at least 61 members of Knesset, as well as agreement between the opposition parties regarding the identity of an alternative government, which is currently unfeasible. The recent introduction of the two-year budget now prevents the opposition from challenging the government’s existance? on an annual basis, and the Arrangements Law prevents it from passing serious criticism of tens of laws, which are passed together with the budget law in an express process. Given that other tools with which the members of the opposition may oversee the government’s activity are also not sufficiently effective, the result is an opposition that is forced to resort to gimmicks and to the High Court of Justice in order to fulfill its mission and to create waves in the media.

The danger of a weak opposition should not be underestimated. This situation harms most of all those populations who are not represented in government, and even harms the functioning of the government itself, which is not subjected to real criticism. In order to change this situation, steps can be taken at two levels. First, there should be structural changes that will incentivize voting for large, main parties in order to create two party blocs, instead of the current overly-fractured situation. One of the ways to do this, for example, is to decide that following elections, the head of the largest party will automatically have the first right to form the next government. If the voters know that these are the rules of the game, they may? alter their strategic considerations accordingly and prefer to award their vote to a large party, in order to increase the chance that its leader will be the head of the coalition. Second, there needs to be a reform of the way in which the Knesset operates so as to strengthen the oversight tools available to its members. Thus, for example, instead of one hour of questions to each minister every year, the Knesset could adopt the models used in other countries, and require the prime minister and other ministers to face questions from members of the opposition on a far more frequent basis. Another example is the need to enlarge the research teams available to Knesset members and to Knesset committees, so that they can deal more easily with the large quantity of knowledge and information acquired by government ministries.

These steps may create a more effective opposition and a better-supervised government, which will in turn serve Israeli society better.