Naomi Chazan
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Parliamentary angst

The Knesset is back in session and has a busy agenda but really just one job: topple the government

Today the Knesset begins its long winter session, slated to extend until the end of March. This year its agenda is especially packed: it will deal with a variety of burning issues ranging from the budget, combatting poverty, immigration policy and conversion, to core matters concerning Israel’s democratic character and the prospects for a lasting accord with its neighbors. The bevy of activity around Israel’s parliament promises to be unusually intense; its concrete outcomes will probably be far more ambiguous. Substantively, in many respects this Knesset is at odds with the policies of the government it upholds; procedurally, it persists in sustaining the coalition’s survival instincts. Under these circumstances, despite its frenetic aura, it continues to prove incapable of producing any meaningful change; it might yet wreak untold harm.

Perhaps, therefore, the time has come for this Knesset to fulfill the fundamental role of any national assembly in a parliamentary democracy. Instead of acting as a holding operation for a dysfunctional coalition, it should disband itself and call for elections which may bring in a new constellation more adept at conducting the affairs of state.

The dissonance — as well as the symbiosis — between the Knesset and the executive branch is particularly apparent in the major order of business on its table in this parliamentary session: the 2015 budget. The makeshift proposal which will be introduced to the members of the Knesset in the coming weeks attempts to placate the various components of the government without offering any plan for economic stabilization, let alone growth. In order to stand by Finance Minister Lapid’s promise not to raise taxes, the coalition is knowingly calling for the expansion of the budget deficit beyond anything acceptable to date. It offers no clue as to how to make up for this shortfall in the future. Furthermore, the internal distribution of the budget is even more lopsided than usual. Defense allocations (including additions to the base budget in the future) are higher than at any point in the past; the civilian expenditures have been reduced accordingly. Little provision is made for dealing with the alarming rise in the cost of living. The much-touted intention to combat poverty following the adoption of the recommendations of the Alalouf commission remains outside the budget parameters.

The Knesset will undoubtedly devote considerable attention to the various provisions of the proposed budget and to the concomitant changes in the accompanying Arrangements Bill. But the Prime Minister has already expended considerable effort in ensuring that the budget (by definition a vote of confidence in the government) will pass. Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that the Knesset will make only minor changes to this critical economic instrument, even though its members are well aware of its inherent flaws.

Despite the centrality of budget-related items, therefore, the discrepancies between the Prime Minister, his coalition partners and the Knesset will be played out most dramatically in other areas. This is especially true for the field of religion and state, where a major confrontation is already brewing on the proposed change in conversion procedures. The failure of the government to adopt the compromise proposed by MK Elazar Stern and accepted by all coalition partners brings the issue back to the plenum with a vengeance. Pitting the Prime Minister, the ultra-orthodox parties which he is courting and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party against Tzipi Livni’s Movement (Ha’Tnua), Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beyteinu and much of the Jewish opposition, the impending debate promises to arouse heretofore subsumed passions and might further destabilize Netanyahu’s already rickety coalition.

More anomalies will undoubtedly emerge around the handling of changes to the by-now notorious “‘Infiltrators’ Bill,” already twice struck down by the High Court. An attempt to bypass the court ruling by the outgoing Minister of the Interior Gideon Sa’ar is slated to be discussed in committee as early as Tuesday. Even more troubling is MK Ayelet Shaked’s effort to introduce legislation which will enable the Knesset to bypass the High Court by reenacting, for a limited period of time, laws that have failed judicial review. This proposal — approved just yesterday by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation over the vigorous opposition of the Attorney General and the Minister of Justice — would not only undermine the still meager human rights protections guaranteed by law, but would also irreparably damage the delicate checks and balances ingrained in Israel’s democratic system.

Indeed, the forthcoming Knesset’s agenda is replete with proposals that seek to curtail the civil rights of Israeli citizens, both individually and collectively. It is unclear whether proposed bills that threaten to tax certain NGOs (such as human rights organizations), limit aspects of freedom of speech and association, or further undermine minority rights, will be passed into law. What is unquestionably evident is that incredible energies — on the part of certain purportedly liberal coalition parties, as well as their counterparts in the opposition — will be required to stem the tide of anti-democratic legislation currently on the agenda of Israel’s parliament.

The Knesset will also deal with a host of other domestic issues. Prominent among these are the highly controversial proposals to withhold VAT on apartments for first-time purchasers (debunked across the board by leading economists on the grounds that such a move will increase the cost of housing and expand inequalities) and to exact only partial taxes on corporations mining Israel’s already limited mineral reserves. The inequitable distribution of resources to Israeli citizens (often at the expense of its Arab minorities) is also sure to come up on a regular basis. So, too, will the question of the precarious nature of the status of women and of the ongoing discrimination against Jews of Ethiopian and Mizrahi extraction. There will not be a topic — from the price of Milky to the inadequate educational investments in the periphery — that will not be addressed by the Knesset, either in its plenum or its committees.

Of all the subjects on the agenda, however, more debating time will be devoted to defense and foreign affairs than to any other issue. From the fallout from the Gaza operation of the past summer, the growing unrest in Jerusalem, relations with the United States and other western allies, to the handling of the volatile regional situation, disagreements abound. Here the Knesset has, traditionally, the least influence. Here, too, is the divergence between the Knesset and the ruling party most pronounced. A majority of the members of the Knesset are committed to a two-state solution; the present government has done everything possible to hamper such an eventuality. Indeed, the more salient these questions are on the national agenda, the more unworkable current political arrangements become.

The abundance of sources of parliamentary contention and dissension cannot but lead to a series of both predictable and unanticipated crises. Even if some good comes out of this Knesset session (a new Ethical Code of Conduct for its members, for one), the days of the 19th Knesset nevertheless seem numbered. Israel’s present parliament has not been able to overcome its internal contradictions — not uncommon in Israel’s history — because it has too frequently sacrificed its own rules of the game at the altar of government continuity. By ruthlessly striking down all the opposition’s legislative initiatives — even of the most consensual and benign sort — it has foregone the possibility of constructing shifting coalitions which could ensure its own durability. As a result, regardless of the human potential this Knesset contains, it has become as ineffective as the executive construct it persists in artificially propping up.

The present Israeli government simply isn’t working; the Knesset, the source of its authority, is on the verge of following suit. One more rambunctious, vapid, hyperactive and directionless session is in store, during which even the most clinging of its members will come to realize that they have no choice but to fulfill their minimal duty and disband their unworkable house. They would be doing us all a favor — and give us some hope — if they do so sooner rather than later.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.