The “Norwegian Law”: Problematic, Yes—But a Necessary Evil

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The “Norwegian Law” has many troubling and significant downsides - however Israel's parliament is simply too small.

The “Norwegian Law” allows some ministers and deputy ministers to resign from the Knesset and to resume their seat during the same term if they leave the Government. The Basic Law: The Knesset, includes a rather complicated formula for calculating the maximum number of ministers in each faction who can invoke this clause, as a function of the faction's size. Today the resignations ceiling stands at five ministers and deputy ministers from large factions, and rumor has it that the new coalition will increase that number to seven. In the last Knesset, 21 ministers and deputy ministers resigned in this way and were replaced by 21 new “Norwegian” parliamentarians; this time the figure is likely to be larger.

The “Norwegian Law” has many troubling and significant downsides. From the fiscal perspective, each “Norwegian” MK costs taxpayers NIS 1.7 million a year; in the last Knesset this came to a total of NIS 35 million a year. Another disadvantage is the almost total disconnect between the ministers who left the Knesset and the parliament. Because ministers no longer have to make the effort to show up in the Knesset, the important informal relations that used to prevail between ministers and MKs, which allowed the latter to bring up citizens’ needs and problems and request information from the ministers, have all but vanished.

But it would seem that the most significant drawback of the law is that the “Norwegian” MKs are really only conditional members of the House. Because ministers are allowed- but not required- to resign their Knesset seat, the “Norwegians'” membership depends on the goodness of the ministers' hearts. Moreover, the "Norwegian" MKs know that if ministers from their Knesset faction leave the Government and return to the Knesset, they themselves will be sent packing. This happened in the last Knesset. When MK Eli Avidar of Yisrael Beitenu received a ministerial appointment and resigned from the Knesset, the next candidate on the party’s list, Sharon Roffe-Ofir, took his place. But when Avidar quit the Government and returned to the Knesset, Roffe-Ofir found herself back out. This revolving door mechanism could seriously impinge on the independence of “Norwegian” MKs and their ability to express criticism of the Government

Nevertheless, the law remains essential. It has various advantages, such as the fact that ministers who have resigned from the Knesset can devote all their time to their ministerial duties. But more important:, it is essential to increase the number of Knesset members who are available to conduct important parliamentary business.

If the Knesset has 120 members and there are more than 30 ministers and deputy ministers, fewer than 90 MKs are left to devote themselves to parliamentary tasks. In this situation, the work load that falls on each of them is onerous, especially with regard to serving on committees. It has already been the case that MKs served simultaneously on five or six committees (sometimes even more). Obviously, this leaves them unable to do serious committee work. In addition, their ability to thoroughly study bills, pose parliamentary questions, and make motions for the agenda is sharply curtailed.

So as long as the Knesset is relatively small and the Government enormous, there is no alternative to the “Norwegian Law.” Without it, the Knesset would simply be unable to function.

But there must be solutions to at least some of the problems caused by the law. One would be to adopt a “full” version of the law that requires (and not just allows) all ministers and deputy ministers (and not some of them( to give up their Knesset seat. This would mean more MKs free to perform parliamentary duties and also increase the “Norwegians'” independence, since their membership in the Knesset would no longer depend on the minister’s whim. Note that this is the situation in all democracies that have a provision of this nature—including Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Portugal, and Estonia (among others).

For the long term, consideration should be given to increasing the size of the Knesset. It is one of the smallest parliaments in the world, both in absolute numbers and in proportion to the country’s population. Even a full Norwegian Law would leave MKs hard-pressed to do their jobs properly. A significant increase (say, to 180 members) would not only make it possible for MKs to work effectively and seriously and concentrate on specific issues, it would also make it possible to repeal the Norwegian Law and thereby eliminate the problems which come with it. But as long as the unpopular idea of expanding the Knesset goes nowhere, there is simply no alternative to living with the Norwegian Law.