The Knesset - Lessons from the Coronavirus Crisis
This document examines the functioning of the Knesset during the emergency situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic, in a comparative perspective with other countries, and draws conclusions on the changes that are needed to improve its work in future crises.
It is precisely during an emergency—such as the coronavirus crisis—that it is of crucial importance that the legislature function well, especially-- with regard to a close and effective oversight of the executive branch.
Parliamentary oversight of the government and its agencies is integral to every democratic regime. During a crisis situation, such oversight is all the more essential—but also faces difficult challenges. When countries face an emergency threat, the need for quick and accurate response leads them to declare a state of emergency, in which governments concentrate additional powers and greater authority at the expense of the legislature. In this case, the delicate balance between the branches of the democratic system is upset, making the oversight role of parliament even more crucial.
In an emergency situation, parliamentary oversight is essential in order to ensure that the executive does not expropriate and wield powers unnecessarily; to verify that the infringements of human and civil rights that are frequently the result of the measures taken by the executive to deal with the emergency are indeed unavoidable, or to roll them back where necessary; and to give a voice to sectors that are often excluded from the decision-making process by the government and whose special needs are not always taken into account. At a later stage, parliamentary oversight is important to guarantee that the state of emergency and the restrictions that come with it are revoked as soon as the circumstances permit.
At the same time, however, it is highly likely that legislative bodies will have to modify their normal procedures to adapt to the conditions and address the challenges that prevail during emergencies. It is clear, for example, that the Knesset could not continue to operate in the traditional fashion when the health regulations required that people maintain a distance of two meters from one other or when several MKs are in quarantine.
The Functioning of Parliaments in Democratic Countries during the Coronavirus Pandemic
A comparative survey (see Appendix ) revealed that almost every parliament in the democratic world modified its routine operation during the coronavirus pandemic; many cut back their work to the absolute minimum and dealt with urgent matters only. In no democracy, however, was the legislature shut down for a significant period.
We can identify four main strategies adopted by parliaments to adapt their work to the new circumstances. Many of them implemented several of these simultaneously.
1. Switching to remote work – completely or partly – by means of commercial platforms such as Zoom.
2. Limiting the number of active parliamentarians: This too is a method aiming to minimize the risk of contagion. Some examples are a “mini-parliament” with the attendance of only some of the full house (in Denmark, for instance, the smaller body comprised 95 of the 170 members; Sweden followed the same course); and the use of proxy voting, in which a representative can also cast votes for other members of his or her faction who are not present in the chamber.
3. Recessing the parliament: In a very few cases, a parliament dealt with the crisis by going into recess. However, in no democratic country we studied was parliamentary activity totally suspended for a prolonged length of time. And in all cases, the decision to recess was made by the legislators themselves and not imposed by another body.
4. Implementing other modifications required for health reasons: All the parliaments we looked at have employed methods such as disinfecting their chambers, the plenum and committee rooms after every session, or once a day. In many parliaments, hand-disinfection stations were installed; in some-stations were set up to distribute masks and gloves and check body temperature (for example, in Israel and Italy). Some parliaments added other means. In Italy (and in Israel, until the end of April), votes in the plenum were conducted by roll-call in small groups, with their entry staggered one after another. In Germany, the Bundestag also employed staggered voting, but outside the chamber, by means of ballots with the members names on them. Many parliaments changed the internal layout of the chamber, leaving several vacant seats between members (the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany, and Ireland). Others moved their meetings to a larger space: in Switzerland, the plenum met in a nearby events hall.
The Knesset and the Coronavirus
As noted, parliamentary activity, and especially parliamentary oversight of the government, has particular constitutional significance during emergencies. In Israel, the unusual circumstances, which preceded the coronavirus outbreak made the operation of the Knesset during the crisis even more important- but also more difficult than in other countries. Until May 2020 there was only a caretaker government, which did not rely on the confidence of the parliament yet it enjoyed a broad invocation of emergency powers and regulations, such as the use of the General Security Service to monitor citizens and their movements—steps that require especially tight parliamentary oversight of the executive branch.
While the crisis raged, there was significant potential for a major disruption of the Knesset’s work, which was checked mainly thanks to the legal gatekeepers (the Attorney General, legal advisors, and the High Court). According to various reports, in the second half of March, several ministers wished to include the Knesset in the list of workplaces that would be forced to curtail their activities under the emergency regulations publicized by the government, until the Attorney General warned that the government has no authority to do so. In addition, the Knesset Arrangements Committee, and later the temporary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which must review and approve emergency regulations instituted by the government, were not formed until after the High Court issued an interim order that unless the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was established without delay, some of the powers vested by the Emergency Regulations, including the authority granted the GSS to conduct digital contact tracing, would be revoked .
Of the various measures that parliaments took to cope with the pandemic cited above, the Knesset adopted only the fourth. The plenary continued to meet more or less as usual, while observing the principles of social distancing and good hygiene. In particular, it drastically reduced its administrative and professional staff and limited visitors’ entry into the building. Until the end of April, only 18 members were allowed on the Knesset floor at any one time, and all votes were conducted by roll-call. At the end of April, it was decided to change this policy and permit all MKs into the Knesset chamber, but with a space of two seats between them (this was made possible by placing some of them in the seats normally reserved for the media and guests). It was decided that each committee would convene simultaneously in two rooms, linked by video chat software. Only committee members and professional staff could be physically present; others invited to take part would do so via Zoom.
Looking towards the Future
The crisis surfaced several flaws in the Knesset’s functioning which must be addressed:
Expanding the relevant section of the Knesset bylaws: Today, Section 6 of the Knesset bylaws relates to the role of the Knesset and its committees in declaring a state of emergency and enacting emergency regulations. However, it does not relate to the challenges that arise in such a situation and how to resolve them. We propose that new clauses be added to the bylaws to address this issue, including the following points.
Suspending or curtailing the activity of the plenum and committees: Clear rules need to be defined to make it totally impossible (or at least very, very difficult) to suspend or curtail the activity of the Knesset plenum and committees, even during emergencies.
Ensuring maximum flexibility in Knesset procedures during emergencies: The bylaws should stipulate that maximum flexibility in the procedures of the plenum and committees should be exercised when necessary.
1. Remote work and voting: At present there does not seem to be any statutory possibility for the Knesset plenum and committees to hold sessions and vote without the members’ physical presence.
We believe that in light of technological advances that make it possible, and because in the future we may see emergencies in which it is impossible for MKs to reach the building or some alternative site (for instance, due to a missile attack or environmental disaster), it is important for the bylaws to state that in such circumstances digital technology can be employed for remote sessions, including debates, speeches, and voting. It is also important that resources be invested to create a digital platform that can serve this purpose and to train MKs on its use.
2. A reduction in the number of active parliamentarians during an emergency: Two of the means discussed above could be relevant for the Knesset: the convening of a “mini-Knesset,” and proxy voting. In principle, in Israel, remote sessions would seem to be preferable to these options, because the latter require strict party discipline and are liable to impair individual members’ right to state their views and vote in accordance with their conscience. Another argument against these methods is that the Members of Knesset (MKs) of a single faction sometimes represent different sectors of the electorate—and every sector should have its voice heard and vote counted.
3. Moving the Knesset’s activity to an alternative site: We propose drafting an operative plan for this, which would consider at least the following options: (1) Using more spacious facilities in which it would be easier to observe social distancing among those present (Knesset members, but also parliamentary aides, the professional and administrative staffs, media representatives, guests, and others); (2) Using protected spaces (in or near the Knesset building, or elsewhere), especially for protection from missile attacks (not an imaginary threat in this country) from which it would be possible for at least a mini-Knesset to operate during security-related and other emergencies.
4. The responsibility for the Knesset’s operations during emergencies: In principle, the Speaker of the Knesset speaker determines its procedures. We see no reason to modify this arrangement, in which it is the Speaker who would decide which mode of activity the Knesset should adopt during an emergency, taking into account the general directive indicating that the Knesset must function in a way as close to its normal routine as possible. However, given the dangers inherent in models such as remote work, in a mini-Knesset, or in proxy voting, the Knesset’s mode of operation in an emergency, emergency, especially in ways that are not specified in its bylaws, should also require the approval of the Knesset’s legal advisor.
Parliaments’ Work Around the World During the Covid-19 Pandemic (As of the end of April 2020)
|Country||Remote Work||Reducing the Number of MPs||Suspending the Parliament’s Work|
|Belgium||Yes||Yes||Yes – Only in the Upper House||No|
|Canada||Yes||No||No||Yes – some of the committees continued to work|
|Ireland||Yes||No||Yes||No – apart from standard election recess|
|Italy||Yes - Lower House only||No||No||No|
|Netherlands||Yes - Partially||No||No||No|
|New Zealand||Yes||Only in the committees||Yes||Yes – for six business days|
|Norway||Only in the committees||No||Yes||No|
|Britain||Yes||No||No||No – apart from Easter vacation|