The Role of the Opposition in the Knesset

Policy Paper 98

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  • Center: Political Reform Program
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The role of the parliamentary opposition in the 18th Knesset (2009–2013) was radically diminished due in part to maneuverings by the government and to infighting among the opposition leaders. These developments raise certain questions concerning the parliamentary opposition in Israel. Is a functioning parliamentary opposition important to all democracies? Is the Israeli opposition still a significant factor in governing the country? What are the functions of a parliamentary opposition? Do the conditions under which Israel's parliamentary opposition operates allow it to fulfill these functions?

This policy paper by IDI researcher Or Tuttnauer, a member of the research group of IDI's Forum for Political Reform, is the first study in over 30 years to examine Israel's parliamentary opposition and is among the first studies to assess oppositions by conducting a quantitative comparative analysis. It assesses the status of the parliamentary opposition in Israel, its abilities, and limitations, comparing it with parliamentary oppositions in 20 established democracies throughout the world.

The study concludes that the weakness of Israel's parliamentary opposition stems from the combination of a highly fragmented party system and a relatively weak Knesset compared with the government. In order to remedy this, it recommends that steps be taken to enhance the status of the Knesset and to return to a two-bloc electoral contest. While the conclusions of the study are concerning, application of its recommendations will strengthen not only the Knesset opposition, but also the government in office.

A political opposition that challenges and criticizes the government is an inseparable part of democracy. The basic assumption underlying democracy stipulates that all people are equal, as are their opinions. Hence, all opinions must be expressed and heard. The principles of representation and accountability at the basis of the democratic idea require mechanisms for criticizing a given government and replacing it with another. Protection of human, civil, and minority rights demands that the government be limited in power and that its actions be subject to scrutiny. Various state agencies and other bodies in democratic society may express their opposition to the government, but one specific body is elected specifically for this purpose and is accorded the same democratic legitimacy as the government: the parliamentary opposition and the parties that comprise it.

This study examines the status of the parliamentary opposition in Israel, its abilities and limitations, comparing it with oppositions in 20 established democracies throughout the world. Two unique features characterize this study: from a local point of view, it is the first study in over 30 years to examine Israel's parliamentary opposition; furthermore, from an academic standpoint, it is among the first to assess oppositions by conducting a quantitative comparison of numerous countries.

The study opens with a comprehensive review of the professional literature concerning political oppositions, formulating three indicators for evaluation and comparison of parliamentary oppositions: (1) size and cohesion; (2) power of parliamentary tools available; (3) record when in office, reflecting its capability of serving as a credible government alternative.

One finding of the comparison indicated that parliamentary democracies are generally divided into two types: the first consists of regimes in which the opposition is large and united but has little influence on the government, while the second comprises those whose small and divisive opposition is compensated by participating in significant decision making and legislation. In the Israeli context, the findings are cause for concern, as the Israeli opposition appears to constitute the worst of both worlds. In Israel, the opposition is small and faction-ridden, with the weakest structure of all parliamentary oppositions examined except that of Switzerland. Its weakness makes it difficult to challenge the government and present itself to voters as an alternative. Moreover, the parliamentary tools available to the Israeli opposition are largely limited and ineffectual. The most important of these tools, the parliamentary committee system, is flawed and does not allow the opposition sufficient influence, in comparison to oppositions in other countries whose size and divisiveness resemble those of Israel. An appropriate measure of influence could compensate for the opposition's acute structural weakness.

Furthermore, from a chronological point of view, the golden age of opposition in Israel appears to have taken place from the 1970s through the beginning of the 1990s. Since then, there has been a decline in opposition unity and record in office that had at one time enabled it to present itself as a legitimate substitute to govern. From 1996 on, parties have preferred to cooperate with one another and to enjoy the benefits of membership in the coalition rather than to compete with one another and, should they lose, serve the people from the opposition. Under such circumstances, opposition members achieve a kind of "permanence" and are liable to adopt populist or anti-establishment approaches because they realize that there is little chance that they will ever come to power. Moreover, several of the parliamentary tools available to the Israeli opposition eroded over the years in attempts to strengthen the government at the opposition's expense.

The key conclusion of this study is that the Israeli parliamentary opposition's weakness originates in the combination of a highly fragmented party system and a relatively weak Knesset compared with the government. Two objectives must be attained to improve Israel's parliamentary opposition: reinforcing the status of the Knesset and returning to the two-bloc contest that characterized the last three decades of the twentieth century. For this purpose, three major steps are required in three distinct spheres of activity:

  1. Bolster oppositionary cohesion: Reducing the number of parties in the Knesset and reinforcing the larger parties will intensify cohesion within the opposition. A more closely-knit opposition can present a united front against the government and serve as a coherent alternative to it. Intensification of unity may be achieved by offering incentives for merging parties and electing larger ones, adoption of multimember electoral districts, and a moderate hike in the legal electoral threshold.
  2. Strengthen the Knesset Committee system: The parliamentary committee system is the most powerful institutional tool available to the opposition, enabling it to realize its function in criticizing and supervising the government and to exert influence on the legislative process. The essential measures required to strengthen the committee system are: redistribution of the committee responsibilities so they overlap those of the government ministries, reinforcing the opposition's critical function by setting a "mandatory oversight package" for each committee, reducing the number of committee members, and legislating the status of the Knesset Research and Information Center.
  3. Reinforce the status of the Knesset opposition: Reinforcing the opposition's status will reduce the risk of tyranny of the majority in the Knesset. This may be accomplished by entrenching Basic Laws dealing with the various state branches (the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary), repealing the Economic Arrangements Law while limiting private legislation, and reassessing the need for a biannual budget.

The main point of the theoretical foundations, findings, and recommendations of this study is that a weak opposition does not necessarily mean a strong government. In fact, a large and cohesive opposition goes hand in hand with a strong and stable government. On the other hand, when the opposition is weak the government can allow itself to be less sensitive and accountable to the public. This is why the precarious state of the opposition in the Knesset of Israel should be of concern to all who cherish the quality and future of Israeli democracy.

Or Tuttnauer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of IDI's political reform research group, headed by Prof. Gideon Rahat.