A Knesset in the Deep Freeze

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Those who are not familiar with the Knesset’s day-to-day activities may mistakenly believe that it normally functions efficiently.

Knesset | Flash 90

In a move unprecedented in Israeli political history, the 21st Knesset – elected on April 9, 2019 – dissolved itself in late May, after less than two months in office. The only law it passed was the Knesset Dissolution Law, and its committees were never manned and convened for the first time (with several exceptions). As a result, in 2019, the political system will be on a pre-election recess for about seven months – not counting the long weeks that will be needed to set up a new government after the coming elections and to assign MKs to the Knesset committees on the basis of the coalition agreements and the balance of power between the coalition and the opposition.

This protracted paralysis of the Knesset and its committees has many serious repercussions. Legislation is not advanced; regulations are not approved; the budgeting of various government programs is stuck; and there is no parliamentary oversight of the executive branch. For instance, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is not monitoring on a regular basis the activities of the executive branch in the areas of security, intelligence and foreign affairs, even though it is the only body empowered to do so on behalf of the public.

The unavoidable result is a substantive blow to the proper functioning of government and to the public interest, as well as further erosion of citizens’ trust in the core institution of Israeli democracy, which was already at an all-time low. Even if these problems cannot be fully resolved, since they stem chiefly from the successive elections and the failure to form a government this spring, they can be mitigated: The interim period between the dissolution of the Knesset and new elections should be reduced to the essential minimum, as should the time allowed for forming a government.

This would require cutting back the number of factions represented in the Knesset and enhancing the power of the major parties. This could be achieved by reforming the system so that the head of the largest faction in the Knesset is automatically designated prime minister. Such a mechanism would encourage parties to form joint lists before the elections. Had it been in force during the attempt to form a government this spring, it is unlikely that Israel would be in its current state. Finally, the Knesset should stipulate a much shorter period for approving the composition of the parliamentary committees.

Those who are not familiar with the Knesset’s day-to-day activities may mistakenly believe that it normally functions efficiently. Quite the opposite is the case: the oversight of the executive branch by its standing committees is far from ideal. The main reason for this shortcoming is the Knesset’s small size, with only 120 members. From this number, we must subtract the ministers – usually about a quarter of the Knesset, discounting those that gave up their seat to another MK in their party through the Norwegian Law – inasmuch as the principle of separation of powers disqualifies them from committee membership and regular parliamentary duties. This leaves only about three-quarters of the house to fill all the seats on the many committees (including subcommittees and ad hoc committees).

As a result, MKs are often assigned to an average of two or three committees, and even more, in the case of coalition MKs, because of the need to assure the coalition a majority on every committee. Given MKs’ simultaneous membership on multiple committees, all of which meet regularly on the same days and hours, attendance at committee debates is sparse. This has a negative impact on the quality of their oversight.

To this we can add the fact that there is no correspondence between committees’ jurisdictions and government ministries. As a result, they must deal with many issues, sometimes with multiple ministries, and with no overlap between their purview and a specific ministry. This structure substantially harms committees’ ability to monitor government activities, because their members can hardly study so many topics in depth to acquire professional expertise in so many areas, or track the implementation of the laws they handled or the governmental programs. Moreover, they do not oversee the utilization of the ministries’ budgets. Lastly, other oversight tools available to MKs (such as parliamentary questions and motions for the agenda) are very anachronistic, so it is hard to make effective use of them.

When the 22nd Knesset convenes, a fundamental reform in its operation must take place. Without serious attention to the issues raised here, it is likely to turn into a watchdog held on a very short leash, not only when it is paralyzed by specific circumstances but in routine times as well.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post