Friday, January 27, 2012

Israel's Knesset at 63 - How it works - Why it needs Reform

Order in the House

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

Israel's Knesset celebrates its 63rd anniversary on February 8 which coincides with Tu B'shvat on the Hebrew calendar -- errant members notwithstanding -- with a celebratory plenum 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 represent constituency districts, and not a few 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, as president of the Provisional State Council, opened the Assembly's session 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 could take place only a little at a time through a series of Basic Laws.

When the security situation allowed, the Knesset was relocated to Jerusalem in a former bank building on King George Street (now the home of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court). By 1966, thanks to the generosity of James de-Rothschild, the Knesset moved to a purpose-built edifice designed by J.Klarwein and Dov Karmi near the Israel Museum and the Edmond J. Safra Campus of the Hebrew University in Givat Ram. Over the years a new wing has been completed and another is under construction.

Given Israel's proportional system of representation which increasingly fosters small, ideologically-driven or sectoral parties, no one party in history has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat house. In the first Knesset Ben-Gurion's Mapai Party won what today seems like a staggering 46 mandates. By contrast, opinion 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. Since a quorum is not required for plenum business, it is not uncommon for an MK to be seen addressing a practically empty chamber. While members work throughout the week, the plenum generally meets Monday-Wednesday. The Speaker, currently Likud's Reuven Rivlin, can influence the legislative process but mostly upholds the institutional prerogatives of the legislature. In the most streamlined of circumstances, government-sponsored legislation approved by the cabinet is sent to the Knesset for a first reading. Surviving bills then go to committee for discussion and are returned (invariably with amendments) to the plenum for a second reading. Bills require a third and final reading for passage into law. There are endless permutations of these procedures. Israel also leads the word exponentially in bills proposed without party sponsorship by individual members.

Like 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.

Of course, elected officials not staff provide the public persona of the committees. One recent early morning, for instance, the Economics Committee gathered television crews in tow to tour commuter rail stations. The members were riding the crest of attention generated by a controversy involving Israel Railways' decision to do away with free transportation for soldiers returning to their bases during the Sunday rush hour. 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. Beyond that, dozens of MKs are also cabinet members or have cabinet-level responsibilities pulling them away from their parliamentary duties. In fact, Liat Collins, a veteran Jerusalem Post journalist who covered the Knesset for many years notes that after every election there is talk of passing the so-called Norwegian Law under which ministers would have to leave their Knesset seats when joining the cabinet to make room for legislators who can devote themselves exclusively to parliamentary work.

There are still more reasons why it's hard to get things done. Vigoda-Gadot argued that unlike legislatures in more established democracies the Knesset is still building the façade of Israel's law-making infrastructure even as its work is constrained by the need to operate within a rickety coalition system and, moreover, within a polity where diversity of opinion is, shall we say, sharp.

Still, any institutional sluggishness has its upside; it hinders irresponsible majorities from railroading through bad legislation, Vigoda-Gadot pointed out. Collins thinks many MKs simply find it frustrating not to be in power. She has proposed creating a shadow government along the British model so opposition members can have a greater sense of purpose. While there is no formal "question time for the prime minister" along the lines of the British House of Commons, members may submit inquiries to ministers who routinely appear at the rostrum to provide answers.

To improve efficiency and professionalize its operations, the Knesset established a bipartisan Office of Research and Information in 2000. But Gur argued that the office is understaffed and often lacks the expertise members need especially to help them comprehend complex fiscal legislation. Understaffing is no less a problem in members' own offices; an MK is limited to two overworked and underpaid parliamentary aides, said Gur. Collins agreed: the hardest working people in the Knesset are often the staffers.

Of course, MKs themselves are well-compensated. At least a dozen started out as hard-driving journalists used to meeting deadlines. In truth, there are some queitly hardworking legislators across the political spectrum and comparatively few slouches. Collins pointed to Yisrael Beitenu's Orly Levi-Abekasis as someone who works productively for children's rights without grabbing headlines. Both Collins and Gur agreed that it helps for MKs to find a niche. Elkin, for example, has authored laws aimed at helping the country's elderly population though his specialized area public policy work draws little press coverage, said Gur.

Despite its mostly hardworking lawmakers the bad behavior, outrageous pronouncements and mud-slinging by a minority of members has sullied the Knesset's image. This helps explain the electorate's insatiable craving for a political messiah and the, probably, fleeting popularity of television personality Yair Lapid, who recently announced his political ambitions. Add to the mix the unhelpful deportment of a number of Arab members affiliated with radical anti-Zionist parties who seem more committed to exacerbating tensions with the country's Jewish majority than building bipartisan support for 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 carry forward with David Ben-Gurion's circa 1950 proposal to divide the country into 120 constituencies with a winner take all system. Others have proposed having 60 members elected in constituencies with the rest along the existing system. Whatever the specifics, reforms should be aimed at making MKs primarily beholden to their constituents.

Even in its present imperfect incarnation Israel's legislature remains a beacon of liberty. In a Mideast that has not yet proven its ability to go beyond "one man, one vote, one time" Israel can boast the only democratically elected legislature that is part of an integral political system that measures success by how well it delivers majority rule while protecting minority interests.

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