Featured Post

An activist Knesset rolls up its sleeves

This parliament's constellation offers hope for real progress on social justice, democracy and yes, even peace and security

After a nine month hiatus (which included a seven-week break-in period for newly elected members), the Knesset is finally getting back to work today. This Knesset, the 19th in Israel’s history, promises to be very different from its immediate predecessor not only in its demeanor, but also in its substantive focus. Besides being far more confrontational vis-à-vis the government, it is set to concentrate primarily on socio-economic and civic issues. But if it really wants to make a dent, its chance to promote real change lies precisely in what it deals with least: matters of peace and security.

In recent years, Israel’s parliament has come to symbolize much of what is wrong with the country. The outgoing Knesset, with an extremely weak and fragmented opposition, became the place where coalition members systematically used their power to silence voices of dissent, trample minority rights and promote anti-democratic legislation under the guise of protecting (their version of) the public interest. A handful of lawmakers, whose behavior made a mockery of the legislature, contributed directly to the popular demand for change which resulted in the replacement of an unprecedented number of members in the recent elections.

The contours of this Knesset do, indeed, vary significantly from this pattern. For the first time in quite a few years, there is potentially a real opposition in parliament. The present coalition relies on the support of the sixty-eight members of the Likud-Beytenu, Yesh Atid, Jewish Home and the Movement. But these face an opposition of fifty-two from Labor, Meretz, Kadima, Hadash, Balad, Ra’am-Ta’al and the ultra-orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism). The size of the opposition is augmented by its experience: many of the veteran – and accomplished – members of the current Knesset are now on the other side of the floor; the neophytes are heavily concentrated in the coalition. Moreover, the parties outside the government boast clear agendas – something palpably lacking in the present coalition. Put together, this means that, structurally, the groundwork exists for a more confrontational dynamic between government and opposition as the Knesset begins its real work in the coming weeks.

This likelihood is reinforced both by the personal composition of the Knesset and by public expectations. Members of the Knesset – whether in the coalition or the opposition – have to find a way of standing out and making their mark. They have therefore already submitted close to 1,000 private member bills and – regardless of the rigid party discipline imposed on coalition members – will nevertheless attempt to advance these initiatives. They have also already demonstrated that they will be guided heavily by an overwhelming popular sentiment which demands that they not only conduct themselves in an appropriate manner, but also that they constantly evince their dedication to hard work (which explains the plethora of social network and facebook activity by members of the house). In this regard, they will be further propelled by the ratings carried out by several monitoring bodies (The Open Knesset, The Social Guard) that now scrutinize the activities of parliamentarians and rank their performance. Behaviorally, then, the 19th Knesset is emerging as a particularly activist body.

The topics on the Knesset’s agenda magnify the probability of reawakening the centrality of the Knesset in Israeli political life. To be sure, the first items – the budget and Haredi conscription – will pass the parliamentary hurdle relatively easily, albeit decidedly boisterously. Support by all the parties composing the government on these two matters is written into the coalition agreements and it will be difficult for any component to buck party discipline at the beginning of its tenure. But this rule does not necessarily apply to other issues, where the prospects for shifting coalitions are particularly high in the present Knesset.

A hint of the possible discord between government intent and cross-party parliamentary resistance occurred just this past week, when the attempt to reduce payments to reservists aroused such an uproar that the Ministry of Defense was forced to back down. Examples of other areas of potential discord down the line abound. The most obvious lie in the social justice arena – especially in potential strife over issues of housing, employment, welfare and education policy in an era of growing budgetary constrictions. Here the differences between many opposition and coalition members are small and the capacity of the government to impose its will may be limited at best.

The same holds true, in quite a different constellation, for questions of religion and state. There is a majority in the Knesset for the promotion of greater religious pluralism, although this may not be the case for the government, despite its seemingly secular makeup. The already delayed vote on the election of the next chief rabbis will provide an intriguing preview of a very different parliamentary front which will contend with initiatives ranging from civil marriage to public transportation on Shabbat.

And, on questions of governmental reform, minority rights, gender equality, democratic resilience and a host of other issues, a similar dynamic seems to be unfolding. The 19th Knesset is going to be preoccupied with domestic issues: this is the brief it received from the electorate, this is the penchant of most of its members and this is where the dividing line between the coalition and the opposition is most blurred.

Ironically, it is this developing pattern that offers an opportunity for real progress on the peace front. There is a clear majority in the Knesset for a two-state solution, which includes many – but by no means all – members of the coalition. This government does not face any parliamentary opposition on the right. Key parties in the opposition have already declared their readiness to support any serious government moves towards a viable Palestinian-Israeli accord. If Benyamin Netanyahu were really sincere about advancing an agreement, he would find this Knesset far more amicable to such a foreign policy initiative than to many of his domestic proposals.

This time, therefore, the resumption of parliamentary activity after such a long break signals a departure from previous modalities. Structurally, behaviorally and substantively the 19th Knesset differs from its recent predecessors. The next few months promise to not be boring. The question is whether, with a reenergized Knesset that holds the potential of providing checks and balances for the executive, it can also prove to be significant. Strong oppositions, after all, make for robust democracies; their true meaning lies not in the noise they make but in their ability to provide a viable alternative to those in power.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.