Last week, with much acrimony, the Knesset approved three laws integral to the survival of the coalition: “The Governability law,” which raises the minimum electoral threshold for entry to the Knesset, “The Referendum law,” which mandates any land transfer in Israel proper (including East Jerusalem) be subject to a plebiscite, and finally, the law to “equalize the burden” among secular Israelis and Haredim when it comes the military draft, although with its 2017 start date and woefully low quota numbers, it will likely do no equalizing.
What was unique about these laws—aside from their perceived social and political significance—was how they were passed. Individually, most analysts concurred, they did not stand a chance. Collectively voted on as a “package,” they could not but pass for the sake of the coalition. Jonathan Lis’s Knesset reporting summarizes the dilemma:
Thus, last week, many coalition members found themselves at the podium trying to explain why they voted in favor of laws they oppose. MK Amram Mitzna (Hatnuah), who voted in favor of the governance law that raised the electoral threshold, told the plenum, “The name of the governance law is flawed, it does not bring about an improvement of governance. This law only harms the Knesset’s status and public image. It is meant to limit the presence of Arab parties in the Knesset, and that is a terrible mistake. This is inappropriate, and wrong.”
This phenomenon, many Knesset members and coalition critics say, is inherently undemocratic. Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition Labor party, boycotted the session with some 50 odd other members, spanning from the far-left to the ultra-religious right. One major complaint has been that the cabinet has subverted the Knesset’s authority; laws are predetermined to pass or fail by party leaders.
This is a fatuous criticism for a number of reasons. First, Knesset members are elected from a list which the average Israeli voter has no say. Voters vote for the lists, not the candidate. Amram Mitzna was not elected to the Knesset; his party received a X number of votes which qualified it for 6 seats and Mitzna was among the first 6 on the list.
Second, the coalition agreement clearly spells out the program for government, including all three of the ‘rushed’ laws. The opposition knew these were coming and had ample time to prepare counterarguments. That the Knesset waived longer debate had more likely to do with avoiding coalition friction than to silence the opposition. As for the coalition MKs who were forced to vote against their conscience, a proportional representation election that fails to yield a majority government will require compromise. These MKs have a responsibility to the party leader, who is the only one on the list who can perhaps make the claim of being “elected”.
Israel does not have a formal Constitution, only Basic Laws, which can always be overturned by a simple majority of MKs but never by the Supreme Court. There is nothing that limits a determined Knesset majority. There is an argument to be made on healthy debate vs. efficiency, but Israel’s parliament remains the center of power in Israel’s political system. The Prime Minister and the cabinet serve at the pleasure of the Knesset; they can be dismissed by any combination of 61 members. Whatever powers the Knesset has lost to the cabinet it has either willfully relinquished or been drowned by the post-electoral process, mainly coalition-building.