The 2015 Knesset: Can New Brooms Make a Clean Sweep?

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Israel's 20th Knesset will have 39 new members. Will this infusion of new blood improve the Knesset's performance? Dr. Chen Friedberg explores some of the issues that may impede the ability of these new Knesset members to "clean up" the Knesset.

When the results of the elections for the 20th Knesset were announced, we discovered that Israel's parliament will have 39 new members. This means that one third of all the members of Knesset will be new. How will this change in the make-up of the Knesset affect the Knesset's performance?

Presumably, the new Knesset members will be very motivated to make a difference and to leave their mark on the public sphere, and this should be beneficial to the Knesset. However, as talented and hard-working as these new Knesset members may be, it seems that the chances that the new Knesset will function optimally are not very high. Moreover, even if all of the new Knesset members were saints, who see parliamentarism as a public calling and as a profession that is worthy of specialization, they would have difficulty fulfilling this mission properly. Why? This is largely due to structural-regime failures that are related to the size of the Knesset and its work procedures.

The Knesset is one of the smallest parliaments in the democratic world. The First Knesset was made up of 120 members at a time when the population of Israel was only 600,000. Although Israel's population has increased over tenfold since then, the number of Knesset members today has remained the same. At the same time, however, the size of the Israeli government has increased dramatically from the 14 ministers of the first Israeli government in 1948. For example, when Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001, he formed a government that had nearly 40 members (ministers and deputy ministers). The second Netanyahu government, which began its term in 2009, had a similar number of members. During its short term, the third Netanyahu government, which was formed in 2013, had 30 members: 22 ministers and eight deputy ministers. Having such a large government is not common in Western democracies.

This situation gave rise to extremely negative effects. For example, since members of the government are not allowed to serve on Knesset committees, when the government is so large only 80–90 Knesset members are available to serve on committees. The total number of committee positions available, however, is over twice that amount. As a result, Knesset members who are not members of the government must serve on an average of two to three Knesset committees at the same time. If they are members of a party that is a member of the coalition, they will serve on many more committees than that, due to the coalition's need to maintain a majority in every Knesset committee. Thus, for example, there was a period of time during the 16th Knesset when Gilad Erdan served on 10 committees, there was a time during the 18th Knesset when Einat Wilf served on some seven committees simultaneously, and in the 19th Knesset, Moshe Feiglin served on some nine committees during part of his term.

In addition to this structural fault, most of the deliberations of the Knesset committees take place at the same time, during the three days in which the Knesset works each week. What is the result of this? Many members of Knesset committees are forced to be absent from most of the committee's deliberations and sparse attendance in such sessions is routine. The Knesset committees are the most important arena for parliamentary oversight of the executive branch. If Knesset members are not able to participating in many of the sessions of these committees, how will they be able to oversee the activities of the government? How will the members of the Knesset—who are our representatives—protect our interests? Sadly, it must be said that at least some of the time, they don't.

Since Knesset members have difficulty overseeing the government effectively by means of the Knesset committees (as well as by means of other traditional tools such as parliamentary queries, motions for the agenda, etc.), they turn to a channel that is readily available, accessible, and populist: private bills. This channel gets media attention, does not have limited use, and does not require in-depth knowledge, expertise, or specialized training.  

The number of private bills that have been brought for preliminary readings in the Knesset in the last 15 years is absolutely unbelievable: 20,000 bills, a number that is unparalleled anywhere in the democratic world. The members of the 19th Knesset, which recently disbanded, outdid themselves: they proposed a total of 3,100 pieces of legislation in a period of 20 months, and only 101 of these bills were passed into laws. Putting forward tens of thousands of declarative "statements of law" over the years that are never actually passed into law does not contribute anything to the public. It also causes real damage to the Knesset and its members and degrades the value of the proposed bills (only a minority of which are of importance to the public).

In addition, private legislation wastes resources of Knesset and government personnel, delays or prevents legislation from being implemented by means of the Arrangements Law, floods Knesset committees with the congestion of private legislation, delaying discussion of government reforms, and prevents the Ministerial Committee on Legislation from thoroughly discussing the large number of private bills that come before it. While only about 5% of all these bills actually become law, the upshot of even this negligible rate is that approximately half of the legislation passed by the Knesset in the last decade originated in private legislation. This indicates that the government has lost control over the legislative process and its products.

Starting with the Knesset that is now beginning its term, the size of the government is to be limited by law to a maximum of 23 members (the prime minister, 18 ministers, and four deputy ministers). But more and more voices are already calling for this limitation to be cancelled in response to coalition constraints, as was done at the initiative of Ehud Barak, then prime minister elect, after the 1999 elections.  If this limitation is cancelled, even a battery of new brooms will not be able to clean up the Knesset any more than their predecessors who faced the same problem.

 Dr. Chen Friedberg is a member of IDI's Political Reform project, a faculty member in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science at Ariel University.