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The Many Ways to Dissolve the Knesset

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As the 19th Knesset is dissolved some two years into its term, Dr. Dana Blander explains the different ways in which the Knesset can be dissolved and discusses the relationship between these mechanisms and government stability in a parliamentary system.

Note: This article was originally published in Hebrew on the IDI website in 2008. The introduction and conclusion of this English translation were updated in 2014.


Introduction

Dissolving the Knesset prior to the date designated for the next election is not a rare occurence in Israel. In fact, most of the Knessets served for less than the official term of four years: In the 66 years of the state's existence, there have been 19 Knessets, meaning that the average term of Israel's parliament is almost  three and half years. Actually, since 1988, no Knesset has reached the end of its official term in office.During the same period, there have been 33 governments; in other words, the turnover of government coalitions is much higher. This indicates that the parliamentary system, in which it is possible to change the government without changing the Knesset, contributes to the stability of Israel's political system. Yet, as we can see in the current political circumstances, it is not always possible to realize this advantage of the parliamentary system,  since sometimes it is impossible to build an alternative coalition given the specific combination of political parties within the Knesset.   

Israel's Basic Law: The Knesset and Basic Law: The Government specify several ways to dissolve the Knesset. The current method of disbanding the Knesset, namely, by passing a law for this purpose by a majority of Knesset members (under articles 34 and 35 of the Basic Law: The Knesset) is only one of the means available to dissolve the Knesset prior to the official end of its term. This method reflects the principle that elections are to be moved forward only if there is a broad consensus in the Knesset that there is a need to go back to the voters. This broad agreement is reflected in the fact that the current law to disband the 19th  Knesset and hold elections on March 17, 2015  was approved by 93 members of the Knesset.   

Does the fact that the 19th Knesset is dissolving itself after only two years of its term prove the instability of the parliamentary system? Should  the frequent elections over the past decades be attributed to failings in the parliamentary system? Not necessarily.  In truth, the parliamentary  system is better equipped than a presidential system with mechanisms for stability, checks, and balances, which are intended to enable the political system to continue functioning in an effective, legitimate manner without continually resorting to elections. In contrast, in a presidential system, a president who does not enjoy the confidence of the public can continue to serve unimpeded. This can lead to a continuous state of stagnation, since the president is rendered incapable of acting by an oppositional parliament that does not support his policies. A parliamentary system is immune to such shortcomings—a government that does not enjoy the confidence of the Knesset or is unable to function will not last. In a parliamentary system, there is also greater responsiveness to the public due to the ability of elected representatives to take a vote of no confidence in the government, thereby regaining legitimacy in the eyes of the voters.

This article reviews the different ways of dissolving the Knesset as enumerated in the Basic Law: The Government and Basic Law: The Knesset, with the aim of showing how each method includes checks, balances, and  political “shock absorbers” that are intended to attempt to stabilize the system before taking the election route. At the same time, the different methods show that when there is no support for the government, when the Knesset is not fulfilling its role, and when there is a majority in the parliament that sees a need to dissolve it, the Knesset is disbanded and the public is once again called to the polls. In other words, to prevent frequent shocks to the political system, going to the voters is used as a last resort.

Israel's Basic Law: The Government and its Basic Law: The Knesset spell out different circumstances in which the Knesset can be dissolved before the end of its term. As we will see below, this is not an automatic process. The Knesset is dissolved only when it is certain that no member of Knesset is capable of putting together a government that will win the confidence of the Knesset, or when a majority of Knesset members feel that the Knesset should be dissolved, or when the Knesset is not fulfilling one of its most important roles: passing the state budget. The various mechanisms for dissolving the Knesset afford sufficient time to Knesset members to express their confidence in an alternative government, yet set a limited amount of time until new elections are held, so as to reduce the period of public and political uncertainty.

1. Dissolution of the Knesset due to failure to form a new government or failure of the new government to win the confidence of the Knesset

Article 11 of the Basic Law: The Government states that if, after a reason has emerged for forming a new government, no candidate has managed to assemble such a government, or if a government was formed but did not gain the Knesset's confidence , the Knesset will be dissolved before the end of its term.

Justification for creating a new government can arise under several conditions:

  • After elections
  • Upon the resignation of the prime minister
  • Upon the death of the prime minister
  • Upon the prime minister’s removal from office by the Knesset due to a criminal offense
  • When the prime minister has ceased serving in the Knesset.

When such a circumstance arises, the president, following consultations with the heads of the factions, charges one Knesset member with the task of forming a government. This first candidate is given a period of 28 days, with a possible extension of up to 14 days, to assemble a new government. If the candidate does not succeed, the president is entitled to assign the task to a different Knesset member. If, after 28 days, the second candidate also has been unsuccessful, a majority of Knesset members can ask the president to give the task to a different Knesset member. That MK is then given 14 days in which to form a government.
In the event that none of the candidates is able to assemble a government, or the government that is assembled does not win a vote of confidence from the Knesset, in essence the Knesset has decided to dissolve itself. In such a case, elections must take place on the last Tuesday prior to the end of the 90-day period that began when the president announced that the candidate was unable to form a government, or from the date that the government was not approved by the Knesset.

The procedure described here, in which several candidates are granted the opportunity to try to form a government while the timeframe for this task is limited in order to reduce the period of uncertainty, serves as a stabilizing mechanism for the political system.

2. Dissolution of the Knesset following a vote of no-confidence in the government, when no other candidate could succeed in forming an alternative government that would win a confidence vote

Article 28 of the Basic Law: The Government discusses the Knesset’s right to take a vote of no confidence in the government. The uniqueness of the no-confidence motion mandated by Israeli law is that this it is a constructive vote of no confidence, meaning that it must include the name of another candidate whom the Knesset members wish the president to charge with the task of forming an alternative government. The advantage of this system is that it turns the vote of no confidence in the sitting government into a vote of confidence in the other candidate to form an alternative government, thereby stabilizing the political system.

The constructive mechanism creates a situation in which no-confidence motions are not submitted constantly, since a consensus is required around an alternative candidate. At the same time, it prevents the creation of a political vacuum, since there is a clear statement of which alternative candidate has the support of a majority of Knesset members. If the candidate  put forward in the motion is unable to form a government, or the Knesset does not express confidence in the government presented to it, the practical upshot of this is that the Knesset has decided to dissolve itself and that elections must take place within 90 days of the president’s announcement that the candidate has failed to put together a government or within 90 days of the date that the request for a motion of confidence in the new government was rejected.

3. Dissolution of the Knesset by the prime minister

Article 29 of the Basic Law: The Government stipulates that the prime minister has the authority, with the approval of the president, to issue an order dissolving the Knesset if s/he is convinced that the Knesset is oppositional, meaning that a majority of its members are opposed to the government and that the government cannot function properly as a consequence of that. The order to dissolve the Knesset enters into effect 21 days after it isissued; however, even in this case, there is a stabilizing mechanism. Such a decision by the prime minister has the effect of dissolving the government, but does not mean the automatic disbanding of the Knesset. The Knesset members are entitled to submit a request to the president asking the president to assign the task of forming an alternative government to a given member of the Knesset. If that Knesset member does not succeed in putting together a government within a period of 28 days (with an extension of up to 14 days), or the government that is presented does not win a vote of confidence from the Knesset, only then is the Knesset dissolved. In such a case, elections must take place on the last Tuesday within 90 days from the publication of the order to dissolve the Knesset if another candidate was not presented to form a government, 90 days from the time of the president’s announcement that the alternative candidate was unable to form a government, or 90 days from the date that the government that was presented did not receive the confidence of the Knesset.

Here too, we see that there are no automatic mechanisms in a parliamentary system; at the same time, the mechanisms that do exist make it possible to handle an oppositional parliament coupled with a government that is unable to function. These mechanisms stand in contrast to a presidential regime, where such a situation can continue for a prolonged period, since the parliament is unable to bring a vote of no confidence in the president.

4. Dissolution of the Knesset by means of a special law for this purpose

The Knesset can decide to dissolve itself prior to the conclusion of its term if a law for this purpose is passed by a majority vote (articles 34, 35 of the Basic Law: The Knesset). The requirement of a majority of members of the Knesset (at least 61) to enact such a law is a stabilizing mechanism aimed at preventing a situation in which a random majority can decide to dissolve the Knesset. Only when there is a consensus among Knesset members that new elections should be held can such a law be passed. The law must note the date of the new elections, which must be no later than five months from the date that the law is passed.

5. Dissolution of the Knesset due to inability to pass the Budget Law

If the Budget Law is not passed by the Knesset within three months of the start of the fiscal year, this is tantamount to the Knesset deciding to dissolve itself (article 36 of the Basic Law: The Knesset). In such a case, elections must be held within 90 days of the determining date. Exceptions to this are if negotiations took place to form a government concurrent with the passage of the Budget Law, if a law was passed dissolving the Knesset, or if elections were held after the date for submitting the budget. In these cases, the operative date will be 45 days from the formation of a new government, or three months from the start of the fiscal year—whichever is later.

This provision is intended to prevent a situation in which a Knesset that is not fulfilling its role continues to serve. The passage of the Budget Law is seen as approval of the government’s plan of action for the coming year; thus failure to pass this law has practical implications and serves as a test of the ability of the Knesset and the government to act in the best interests of the public. If they have failed, and did not demonstrate the responsibility required of elected representatives, new elections must be held. This is a further example of how the parliamentary system increases the responsibility of elected representatives toward the public.


Table 1: Ways to Dissolve the Knesset and
Set a Date for New Elections

Law   Article   Reason for Dissolving the Knesset   Date of the Elections
Basic Law: The Government   11  
Failure to form a new government and receive the confidence of the Knesset after a reason was presented to form a new goverment
  The last Tuesday before the end of the 90-day period from the president's announcement or the failure to win confidence
  28  
A constructive vote of no confidence that fails due to the alternative candidates inability to form a government
  The last Tuesday before the end of the 90-day period from the president's announcement or the alternative government's failure to win confidence
  29   Dissolution of the Knesset by the Prime Minister and inability to form an alternative government   The last Tuesday before the end of the 90-day period from the day that the dissolution order goes into affect, or from the day in which the period for forming the government is up, or from the day of informing the present, or from the day in which the government fails to win the Knesset's confidence.
Basic Law: The Knesset   34, 35   Passage of a law to dissolve the Knesset by a majority vote   Within five months of the passage of the law
  36   Inability to pass the state budget   The last Tuesday before the end of the 90-day period from the determining date, which is three months after the start of the fiscal year or 45 days after the formation of the new government.

 

The 19th Knesset served the second shortest term in the history of the State of Israel.  

The Basic Law: The Government and the Basic Law: The Knesset enumerate a series of circumstances in which the Knesset can be dissolved and new elections will take place. The common denominator of all of these is that they are all delaying mechanisms: dissolving the Knesset is never automatic, even when the prime minister decides to do so. The advantage of these mechanisms is that they provide an opportunity for the political powers to stabilize the political system when there is a crisis of confidence between the Knesset and the government. Elections are resorted to only in the event that it is not possible to form a government that will receive the confidence of the Knesset and be able to function properly. This is an example of the balance that exists in parliamentary regimes between aspects of governance  that are designed to give elected representatives maneuvering room to act in a way that will stabilize the political system and serve the interests of the public, and aspects of representativeness, which reflect the approach that the people are sovereign and must be consulted in times of impasse following a crisis.

Those who are quick to criticize the parliamentary system in light of changing political circumstances are like people who invest money in the stock market and sell the moment the stocks fall—they end up losing on all fronts. Only by staying with a parliamentary regime over the long term, and implementing gradual improvements, can we ensure the stability of Israel’s political system. It is not the parliamentary system itself that is to blame for the fact that since 1988, no Knesset has completed its term. The parliamentary system contains stabilizing mechanisims, but political players do not always choose to use them.

Moreover, the current early elections can also be seen as a gatekeeping mechanism that ensures the responsiveness of the political system to a political reality in which there is a lack of governability. This is in contrast to a presidential system, in which a 'paralyzed' president stays in office till the end of his term even if he is unable to pursue his policy due to an oppositional parliament.