How much parliamentary independence should Knesset members have? To what extent must they toe their party's line? At a time when party discipline and coalitional discipline play a decisive role in determining the fate of Israeli policy and proposed legislation, MK Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin, Speaker of the Knesset, calls on parties to allow Knesset members to remain true to their conscience and to their role as representatives of the people.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin often said that even when something is obvious, it should still be said. In the past, the independence of Knesset members and the need to grant them freedom of thought in decision-making and voting was something that was obvious; after all, we live in a democracy, not a dictatorship. The problem is, however, that over the course of time, the demanding nature of parliamentary life, as well as various events and behaviors of Knesset members, have eroded this once obvious point to the extent that it again requires clarification.
The Case of MK Daniel Ben-Simon
This issue re-emerged a few weeks ago when Labor MK Daniel Ben-Simon was to take up his new position as Chair of the Knesset's Aliya and Absorption Committee, in accordance with the rotation of committee chairs included in the coalition agreement. MK Ben-Simon was required to affirm in writing that he would be loyal to the coalition and the government, and that he would categorically vote in line with the government position on all matters; otherwise, he would not be able to assume the post. MK Ben-Simon refused, and consequently the coalition did not approve his appointment.
Only one example of many, this serves as a test case for the question of the independence of thought and parliamentary independence that each individual MK has and the issue of how much "sovereignty," as it were, they have with regard to the public mandate received by virtue of their membership in their parliamentary faction.
The role of an individual Knesset Member, who was elected as part of his or her parliamentary party, is characterized by constant tension between two commitments: coalition and party discipline, on the one hand, and independent functioning as a representative of the public, on the other. Obviously, a political party is not merely a collection of individuals, and a Knesset member who was elected in the name of the party and its platform is expected to conform to the party line.
In today's era of primaries, when each party's Knesset candidates are chosen on the basis of their individual prominence, the imposition of party discipline (including sanctions) aims to curb personal expression and turn an assortment of individuals into a movement that works to achieve a common goal. For example, a Knesset party is entitled to replace its committee representative if he or she holds an opinion that does not conform to the desired party line. In this instance, the interests of the party supersede personal interests.
I am nevertheless convinced that the letter that MK Ben-Simon received, with the demands that it contained, has no legal or moral validity. Legally, such an agreement cannot be enforced if the signatory is in breach of his commitment. More important, however, morally and publically, we must regard with utmost gravity any attempt to categorically and declaratively negate a Knesset member's freedom to vote, from now on and with regard to any issue that might possibly arise. It is absurd to compel a member of Knesset to take a particular stance on an issue that does not yet exist. Coalitional discipline and factional discipline are important tools, but an MK's freedom to act according to what he or she believes is even more important.
Ben-Simon's case falls in the "gray area" between party discipline and an MK's personal independence, since such discipline has logic of its own. In any event, however, a Knesset member must be given the option of paying a political price for acting in accordance with his or her conscience and straying from the party line.
The Case of MK Said Naffaa
A more significant and serious case brought before me touches on an internal dispute that arose within the Balad Party [the National Democratic Assembly, which was established by Dr. Azmi Bishara before the elections for the 14th Knesset]. Differences of opinion between the party and MK Said Naffaa, one of its elected members, became apparent. This schism led to Naffaa's ouster from the party and his exclusion from factional parliamentary activity. The party, however, sought to go further and take the unprecedented step of revoking all his parliamentary privileges, including the possibility of submitting bills and motions.
In this case, too, I believe that a clear distinction must be made between the personal rights of a Knesset member and activities that are derived from his position as a representative of the party, and I communicated this to the head of the party. Obviously, if a party does not recognize an MK as its member, that Knesset member cannot speak on behalf of the party in plenum debates and cannot represent it on committees. However, the right to submit a private bill or parliamentary motion is not acquired exclusively through one's party affiliation, even though the scope of such bills and motions is derived from the party's quota; rather, it is an expression of the basic right of every Knesset Member to carry out his parliamentary work. Such activities are the very essence of Parliamentary service. If this right is eliminated, the Knesset member will be deprived of his or her most basic work tool. Proposing bills and submitting motions are at the nexus between the personal rights given to the Knesset member and the tools of the faction. I believe that engaging in such parliamentary activities is a personal right of each Knesset member that is not acquired by virtue of party membership and does not require the party's sanction; the party's quota is simply a limiting framework.
If the case of Ben-Simon is the "slippery slope," the case of Naffaa is the danger lying in wait at the bottom.
The Influence of Lobbyists
The independence of the Knesset and its members is also subjected to complex tests whenever decisions affecting the future of powerful financial corporations—such as banks and communications, energy, and finance companies—are on the agenda. Whenever an issue related to such corporations (such as reducing connectivity fees between telephone networks, canceling bank commissions, or raising gas royalties) is up for committee discussion or due for a legislative vote, these corporations, which are controlled by the wealthy, recruit the finest lobbyists to appeal to Knesset members to vote in favor of their clients.
I am among those who are concerned by the excessive influence of lobbyists. Their scope of activity must be clearly defined and limited. Transparency, which recently passed into law for the first time, is not enough. We must explore ways to ensure that the influence of lobbyists acting on behalf of the wealthy does not encroach upon the Knesset member's independence and freedom of decision. The Knesset's Research and Information Center, which provides MKs and committees with objective and professional information, is a most important tool, but it is not enough. We must make every effort to ensure that the financial interests of the few do not seep into government and control its decisions.
The independence of a Knesset member is comprised of checks and balances. Many of the cases affecting the independence of individual Knesset members are borderline cases that are not simple to decide and are ultimately subject to the public's judgment. Either way, the relevant criteria that must guide us when we judge such cases, each on its own, is the ability of the Knesset member to remain true to his or her duty as the representative of the sovereign.
MK Reuven Rivlin is Speaker of the Israeli Knesset.