Who Presides over the Knesset? On the Role of the Speaker of the Knesset
MK Reuven Rivlin was sworn in this week as Speaker of the Knesset. Even before he was elected to the post he announced that he would modify the dress code instituted by his predecessor, MK Dalia Itzik, and allow people to wear jeans in the Knesset building. To mark Rivlin’s election, this article examines the Knesset Speaker’s statutory and customary roles (aside from setting a dress code). With this background, we will then consider whether this is a symbolic job or one that has real influence over how the Knesset operates. Finally, we will compare the powers and functions of the Knesset Speaker with his/her counterparts in Great Britain and Australia.
According to section 20 of the Basic Law: The Knesset, “The Knesset will elect from among its members a Speaker and deputy speakers.” The Speaker and deputy speakers together compose the Knesset presidium (Knesset Law 5754-1994, §10). According to the Knesset Law 5754-1994, the number of deputy speakers may not exceed seven (although the 17th Knesset enacted an ad hoc provision permitting eight deputy speakers during its term of office). When a new Knesset convenes for the first time, the most senior Knesset member presides over the session until the Speaker has been elected. In the current (18th) Knesset, this was MK Michael Eitan. A member of the executive branch cannot serve as Knesset Speaker or as a deputy speaker.
The Knesset Speaker and deputy speakers are elected by the Knesset in open balloting by a simple majority (Knesset Bylaws, §1). The Speaker and deputies are elected for the entire term of the Knesset. A Knesset member who is under indictment or is the subject of criminal proceedings may not be a candidate for the post of Speaker or deputy speaker. Similarly, Knesset members who have been convicted of a crime that, in the determination of the Knesset House Committee, bears moral turpitude, cannot hold these positions for 10 years after the completion of their sentence. By majority vote, the Knesset may suspend the Speaker or a deputy speaker or limit his/her tenure on account of a crime, conviction or some other reason. The procedure for removing a Speaker or deputy speaker is detailed in the Basic Law: The Knesset and in the Knesset Law 5754-1994. If the Speaker leaves the country, dies, resigns, or is removed from his/her post, the Knesset House Committee selects one of the deputy speakers to replace him or her. A deputy speaker who serves as acting speaker discharges all the Speaker’s statutory functions and powers. The Speaker of the Knesset enjoys the same salary and terms of employment as do government ministers.
The Speaker of the Knesset is expected to perform his/her job without favoritism and with no display of partisan behavior. Nevertheless, as a member of the Knesset, the Speaker does take part in votes, even when he/she wields the gavel. By contrast, the Knesset Speaker’s counterparts in Great Britain and Australia vote only in the case of a tie.
The functions of the Knesset Speaker are defined as follows: “The Speaker of the Knesset will manage the business of the Knesset, represent it to the outside world, protect its dignity, maintain order at its sessions, and make sure that its bylaws are followed. He [sic] will preside over Knesset sessions, conduct them, put questions to a vote and determine the result, as well as the result of all elections that take place in the Knesset” (Knesset Bylaws, §5).
Procedural Powers Associated with the Knesset’s Regular Work
- The Speaker of the Knesset is entitled, with the approval of the Knesset House Committee, to set the number of weekly sessions and the topics they will address.
- The Speaker of the Knesset determines the weekly agenda for Knesset sessions and is entitled, in addition, to call the Knesset into emergency session.
- The Speaker of the Knesset determines the order of speakers in debates.
- The Speaker of the Knesset and the deputy speakers determine the order in which Knesset members’ bills are brought to the floor for a preliminary reading based on the size of the faction of the bill’s sponsors.
- The Speaker of the Knesset is responsible for maintaining order in the plenum during debates. He/she is entitled to call a member of Knesset to order and to expel him or her from the chamber after three such warnings or to expel him or her from the chamber at once should the Knesset member engage in a blatant breach of decorum or show disrespect to the Knesset, the Speaker, or any of its members. The Speaker is entitled to decide whether to refer a complaint to the Ethics Committee regarding a Knesset member who has been expelled from the chamber.
- The Knesset Speaker and deputy speakers are authorized to refuse to approve for debate bills that, in their opinion, are racist in their essence or that reject the existence of the State of Israel as the State of the Jewish People (Knesset Bylaws, §134).
- The Knesset Speaker is not a member of any Knesset committee except for the Interpretations Committee, but may participate in the meetings of all its committees.
- The Knesset Speaker appoints the Secretary of the Knesset and is responsible for all employees of the Knesset, the Knesset secretariat and the Knesset budget.
- The Knesset Speaker appoints the Knesset’s legal advisor, with the approval of the Knesset House Committee, from a list of candidates recommended by the public committee established for this purpose (Knesset Law 5754-1994, §18).
- The Speaker of the Knesset appoints the four members of the Knesset Ethics Committee and names one of them to serve as its chair.
Additional Functions and Powers
- Interim or Acting President of the State: Whenever the office of president is vacant, the Speaker of the Knesset serves as Interim President of the State. The Speaker of the Knesset also serves as Acting President of the State whenever the President has temporarily ceased to carry out his duties (Basic Law: The President of the State, §23). This was the case during the tenure of President Moshe Katsav; when he declared his temporary incapacity and ceased to exercise his function, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik served as Acting President of the State. When the Speaker of the Knesset serves as Acting President or Interim President, he or she holds all the functions assigned to and powers vested in the President of the State. It is customary that, when functioning as President of the State, the Speaker does not preside over the Knesset.
- Signing Laws: According to an amendment to the Transition Ordinance Law 5709-1949, the Prime Minister, the responsible minister, the President of the State, and the Speaker of the Knesset affix their signatures to legislation passed by the Knesset.
- The Speaker of the Knesset is responsible for implementation of the Party Financing Law 5733-1973 (§20). As part of his or her powers under this law, the Speaker of the Knesset appoints two of the three members of the public committee that sets the public funding of political parties and transfers the parties’ funding to their bank accounts.
- The Speaker of the Knesset is responsible for implementation of the Knesset Members’ Immunity, Rights, and Duties Law 5711-1951. Under this law, a member of Knesset must notify the Speaker of the Knesset of his/her consent to the lifting of his or her immunity, and the Speaker notifies the Knesset accordingly.
- The Speaker of the Knesset receives the resignations of members of the Knesset (Basic Law: The Knesset, §4) and of the President of the State (Basic Law: The President of the State, §19)
- Formation of a Government: The Speaker of the Knesset is notified by the President if the Knesset member who has been charged with forming a Government has failed to do so and the President estimates that there is no possibility of forming a Government. Should the candidate succeed in forming a Government, he or she informs the President of the State and the Speaker of the Knesset. The Speaker of the Knesset in turn notifies the Knesset and calls a special session for this purpose within seven days of the notification.
The above list of the functions of the Speaker of the Knesset is incomplete. The Speaker of the Knesset has many and diverse statutory functions. Many laws stipulate that certain changes must be reported to the Speaker of the Knesset (for example, when a faction changes its representative on the Central Elections Committee) or that the Speaker of the Knesset must report any changes that take place (for example, he/she must inform the Central Elections Committee of changes in the composition of a parliamentary faction or in the number of its members). Although some of these functions and powers are purely symbolic, others have real public, parliamentary and political weight. In any case, the Speaker of the Knesset is certainly the senior parliamentary officer, and the Knesset member who holds the post bears great responsibility.
The member elected Speaker of the Knesset is usually a representative of the largest faction in the house. It is customary for the deputy speakers to be chosen according to a party key. Only once in history (before 2009) was the Knesset Speaker not a member of the largest faction: in 1959, Nahum Nir of Ahdut Ha’avoda was elected Speaker when the opposition factions on the right and left formed what was called a “paper coalition” in order to elect him over the candidate of Mapai.
To date, 16 different individuals have served as Knesset Speaker, including only one woman (Dalia Itzik of Kadima in the 17th Knesset). Reuven Rivlin is the first Speaker to serve two nonconsecutive terms. He is also a member of the Likud, which is not the largest faction in the 18th Knesset.
Table 1: Knesset Speakers, Term of Office, and Party Affiliation
|1959||Nahum Nir||Ahdut HaAvoda|
|1969-1959||Kadish Luz||Mapai, Alignment|
|1977-1972||Yisrael Yeshayahu Sharabi||Alignment|
|2003-1999||Avraham Burg||One Israel|
Decisions by the Speaker of the Knesset and the Knesset Presidium are subject to judicial review by the High Court of Justice. Prima facie this refers only to procedural rulings, but some procedural rulings—such as the date set for a no-confidence motion or the scheduling of a bill on the Knesset agenda—may have major political significance.
As a matter of principle, the Court tends to not interfere in decisions by the Knesset Speaker because they are internal parliamentary matters. A ruling by the High Court of Justice that rejected a petition against the Knesset Speaker for postponing a no-confidence vote noted that “The work arrangements of the Legislature are its own internal affair, which, in view of the separation of powers, pertain to the legislative branch itself, which also disposes of tools for examining and reviewing its own decisions. Consequently it is appropriate that the judicial branch respect the internal affairs of the Legislature and not interfere in them” (HCJ 652/81, Sarid v. The Speaker of the Knesset). That is, the Court tends to reject petitions against decisions by the Speaker of the Knesset when it believes that the extent of the injury that may be caused by the decision is insignificant or, as a matter of substance, does not justify interference in the internal affairs of the Knesset and the discretion of the Speaker.
Nevertheless, the Court may find it proper to interfere when it detects substantive harm to the “fabric of parliamentary life” and “the fundamental aspects of our constitutional system.” The Court formulated that principle as follows: “The appropriate balance between the need to ensure the rule of law and the need to respect the unique status of the Knesset and its decisions regarding its internal affairs will be guaranteed by adopting a criterion that takes into account the extent of the alleged damage to the fabric of parliamentary life and the extent of its impact on injury to the fundamental aspects of our constitutional regime.… When the alleged harm caused by the internal parliamentary arrangements is light and has no impact on the fundamental aspects of our parliamentary system, then the consideration of the independence and uniqueness of the Knesset overrides the rule of law, and there is justification for the judicial authority to withdraw from a hearing of the matter, which is essentially political. This is not the case when the alleged harm is significant and could damage the essential values of our constitutional regime. In such a situation, the need to guarantee the rule of law prevails” (HCJ 652/81, Sarid v. the Speaker of the Knesset).
Adhering to this line, the High Court has intervened only in cases where it believed that the Speaker of the Knesset was exercising powers not vested in him or her by law or by the Knesset Bylaws or that he or she was exercising faulty judgment. For example, in 1984 the Speaker of the Knesset disqualified a bill submitted by Kach, led by MK Meir Kahane, on the grounds that it was racist. Kahane appealed to the Court, which ruled in his favor and determined that the Speaker of the Knesset did not have the authority to disqualify bills on account of their content and that such disqualification amounted to a substantive injury to the fabric of parliamentary life and constitutional rights (HCJ 742/84, Kahane v. the Speaker of the Knesset). In the wake of this ruling, the Knesset Bylaws were amended to state explicitly that the Knesset Speaker and the deputy speakers are authorized to disqualify bills if, in their opinion, the content is racist or rejects the existence of Israel as the State of the Jewish people (Knesset Bylaws, §134).
Thus, despite the existence of the principle of judicial review of the Knesset Speaker’s actions and judgment, the Court rarely wields this authority and the Speaker can perform his or her job independently.
The Speaker of the British House of Common
The role of the Speaker of the House of Commons in Great Britain is similar to that of his or her Israeli counterpart: he/she presides over debates in Parliament, maintains order in the plenum, determines whether some procedure is compatible with the bylaws, and handles various administrative functions such as responsibility for the permanent staff. The Speaker also has ceremonial roles. He or she represents the Commons at state and royal events (such as the Queen’s jubilees). With regard to the dress code, the Speaker of the House of Commons must follow strict rules, until not so long ago wearing a wig while presiding and wearing a gold-embroidered satin robe at the opening session of Parliament. The Speaker has three deputies; none of them vote when they preside over the House, except to break a tie.
Although it is a traditional in Israel that a member of Knesset, once elected Speaker, executes his or her job without bias or partisanship, in Great Britain this is not merely declarative. Speakers of the House are required to resign from their party when elected to this position, so as to guarantee that they will perform their job impartially and stand above all controversy. It is also customary for the Speaker not to socialize with the members of his or her former party or with members of Parliament in general. What is more, former Speakers are expected to refrain from involvement in political matters; however, if appointed to the House of Lords, they may sit on any party bench there.
The Speaker is elected at the start of the term of each new Parliament (after general elections) or after the resignation or death of the incumbent Speaker. If the incumbent Speaker has been returned to the new Parliament, he or she is asked whether he or she wishes to continue in the post and his or her candidacy is voted upon. If the Speaker retires or passes away, there may be more than one candidate to fill the position; since 2001, the Speaker is elected by secret ballot in a process that may require several rounds until one candidate receives an absolute majority.
The Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives
The Speaker is the chief officer of the Australian House of Representatives. Article 35 of the Australian constitution stipulates that the first thing that the House must do, when it convenes, is to elect a Speaker from among its ranks. His or her functions include representing Parliament and serving as the presiding officer of the House. The Speaker’s authority derives from Parliament, to which he/she is responsible. He/she is elected by the members of the House of Representatives, who can also depose him or her. The Speaker wields various representative functions, representing the House of the Representatives to the Australian Senate and to the Governor General, to the other branches of government, and to other outside bodies. His or her procedural roles include presiding over the House, maintaining order and ensuring that its work is conducted in accordance with its bylaws and the constitution (he/she is the authorized interpreter of the parliamentary bylaws). As in the British House of Commons, the Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives does not take part in debates and does not vote except to break a tie. He or she is a member of several parliamentary committees.
The Speaker is elected by the members of the House of Representatives—by secret ballot if there is more than one candidate. He or she is elected for the entire term of Parliament. As in Israel, in Australia the Speaker is usually a representative of the ruling party. Unlike in Great Britain, the Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives continues to be a member of his or her party and to exercise both party and parliamentary functions. After the election of the Speaker, two deputies are also chosen. The Speaker receives a bonus on top of his regular salary as a member of Parliament. In Australia, too, there is a formal dress code for the Speaker, including a black robe, unless he or she is a member of the Australia Labour party which does not go in for such niceties. The Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives is accorded a luxurious suite and grounds that the Speaker of the Knesset can only envy.
We see, then, that the functions and status of the Speaker of the Knesset and the speakers of parliaments that follow the Westminster model (Great Britain and Australia) are similar. The main difference is the British requirement that the Speaker sever all partisan connections after his or her election. The speakers of the House of Commons and Australian House of Representatives also do not normally cast votes, except to break a tie. Another essential difference is the number of deputy speakers. In Israel, the number may not exceed seven, but this is many more than in other parliaments. In addition, in Great Britain and Australia, the Speaker is elected by secret ballot when there is more than candidate. In the Knesset, the balloting is open and there is no requirement of an absolute majority, although in most cases the Speaker is chosen unanimously or by an overwhelming majority.
The Speaker of the Knesset is the senior officer of the house. He or she is generally a representative of the most important party in the coalition and is elected by open ballot. The Speaker of the Knesset has various functions and powers that are directly associated with the work of the Knesset, as well as other functions, such as standing in for the President of the State when necessary. After his or her election as Speaker, a Knesset member is expected to act without bias or partisanship.
HCJ 652/81, Sarid v. the Speaker of the Knesset, 36(2) PD 197.
HCJ 742/84, Kahane v. the Speaker of the Knesset, 39(4) PD 85.
Dr. Dana Blander is an IDI researcher who specializes in the political system in Israel.