Order in the House

By Elliot Jager
Monday, February 27, 2012

On a bad day, Israeli parliamentarians have been known to hurl water at political adversaries, denigrate immigrant MKs' Hebrew accents, and even bow their heads in the memory of Palestinian suicide bombers.  On a good day, they mostly go about the nuts-and-bolts crafting of bipartisan legislation for the benefit of all Israelis.

This month, Israel's 120-seat Knesset celebrated its 63rd anniversary with a celebratory session and its first-ever open house.  Nowhere is Israel's political system more starkly on display, for better and worse, than in its unicameral legislature—none of whose members are elected as individuals, none of whom represent constituency districts, and not a few of whom have been catapulted to positions of influence way beyond their intellectual abilities.  All operate in a hyper-pluralist environment where old-fashioned interest group politics has run amok.

It all began even before the 1949 Armistice Agreement, when Israelis went to the polls to elect a Constituent Assembly.  Chaim Weizmann, president of the Provisional State Council, inaugurated the Assembly in Tel Aviv with the idea that it would frame a constitution.  Instead, the Assembly transformed itself into a legislature and decided that constitution-building would take place a little at a time, through a series of Basic Laws.

When the security situation allowed, the Knesset was relocated to a former bank in Jerusalem. By 1966, thanks to the generosity of James de Rothschild, it had moved to its own building.  Since then, a new wing has been completed.  Another is under construction.

Given Israel's proportional system of representation, which fosters small, ideologically driven or sectoral parties, no one party has ever won an outright majority.  In the first Knesset Ben-Gurion's Mapai Party won what nowadays seems like a staggering 46 seats.  Today, polls suggest that Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party would "win" a new election with around 28 seats.

The rules are no more arcane than elsewhere.  While members work throughout the week, the body generally meets Monday through Wednesday.  Since a quorum is not required for business, it is not uncommon to see an MK addressing a practically empty chamber.  In the most streamlined cases, government-sponsored legislation is sent to the Knesset for a first reading; surviving bills go to committee for discussion and are returned, invariably with amendments, for a second reading.  Bills require a third, final reading to become law.  There are endless permutations.  In addition, Israel leads the word exponentially in numbers of bills proposed without party sponsorship by individual members.

As in the U.S. Congress most of the real work gets done by committee. The Knesset has 12 permanent committees and three ad hoc committees; all told there are roughly 20 active panels including caucuses. This may be too many, according to Haifa University political scientist Eran Vigoda-Gadot who has supported streamlining the division of labor. The committees, which are professionally staffed, enable the Knesset to fulfill its governmental oversight responsibilities, according to attorney Rachel Gur, the legislative director for Likud coalition chairman MK Ze'ev Elkin.

But elected officials, not staff, constitute the public face of the committees. On a recent morning Economics Committee MKs, television crews in tow, toured commuter rail stations; Israel Railways had decided to do away with free transportation for soldiers returning to their bases during Sunday rush hour, and the members were riding the wave of public attention generated by the controversy.  Meanwhile, back in the Knesset itself, the Justice Committee was meeting quite unremarkably to discuss . . . patent legislation. 

No one disputes that it is hard to get things done, foremost because of the way political power is distributed within Israel's coalition system.  Also, dozens of MKs have Cabinet-level responsibilities pulling them away from their parliamentary duties.  Liat Collins, who covered the Knesset for many years for the Jerusalem Post, says that after every election, there is talk of passing the so-called "Norwegian Law," which would require MKs to leave their Knesset seats upon joining the Cabinet.  It has not yet passed.

Still, any institutional sluggishness has its upside: It keeps irresponsible majorities from imposing bad legislation.  Collins thinks many MKs simply find it frustrating not to be in power; she proposes a UK-style "shadow government" to give opposition members can have a greater sense of purpose.  

In 2000, in order to professionalize and improve efficiency, the Knesset established a bipartisan Office of Research and Information.  But Gur says the office is understaffed and often lacks the expertise members need, especially with fiscal legislation; and MKs' offices are also understaffed, each consisting of two overworked and underpaid parliamentary aides.

The MKs themselves are well compensated, but there are quietly hardworking legislators across the political spectrum and comparatively few slouches.  Collins points to Yisrael Beitenu's Orly Levi-Abekasis as someone who works productively for children's rights without grabbing headlines.  Elkin, Gur notes, has authored laws aimed at helping the country's elderly population, though his specialized work draws little press coverage.

Despite these mostly hard-working lawmakers, the bad behavior and mud-slinging by a minority of members have sullied the Knesset's image.  This taint helps explain the electorate's insatiable craving for a political messiah and the popularity (probably fleeting) of Knesset candidates like the recently announced television personality Yair Lapid.  Add to the mix the unhelpful deportment of some Arab MKs affiliated with radical anti-Zionist parties, who seem more committed to exacerbating tensions with the Jewish majority than to crafting legislation that might benefit Israel's Arab citizens.

To put the Knesset—and Israel's political system more generally—in better order, politicians need to find the courage to implement David Ben-Gurion's circa-1950 proposal to divide the country into 120 winner-take-all constituencies.  Others want 60 members elected by constituencies, the rest chosen through the existing system.  Whatever the specifics, reforms should be aimed at making MKs primarily beholden to their constituents.

Yet even in its present imperfect incarnation, Israel's legislature remains a beacon of liberty.  In a Mideast region that has not yet progressed beyond "one man, one vote, one time," Israel can boast the only democratically elected legislature that is part of an integral political system whose measure of success is how well it delivers majority rule while protecting minority interests.

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