Naomi Chazan
Naomi Chazan
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Saving the Knesset

Outsized by a ballooning population, Israel's flailing parliament desperately needs reform to strengthen checks and balances and promote equality
IIllustrative: Then Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin at the Knesset during a special session about the Israel Railways work on Shabbat on September 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
IIllustrative: Then Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin at the Knesset during a special session about the Israel Railways work on Shabbat on September 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The International Day of Parliamentarianism came and went last week (June 30, to be exact), but in Israel, the annual celebration of representative institutions was hardly noted. The Knesset has been in a constant state of disrepair for quite some time and is now by far the most fragile of the country’s three branches of government.

Israel can no longer avoid dealing head-on with the weakness of its Knesset. Robust parliaments provide the vital link between decision-makers and citizens as well as the most important check on executive abuse of power. Patchwork reforms, such as the various renditions of minister substitution arrangements now under consideration for a final reading, simply skirt the two critical structural problems at hand. First, how can the working capacity of the Knesset be strengthened? And second, on this basis, what role should the parliament play in Israel’s political system? Without tackling the former, the answer to the latter becomes irrelevant.

The single most important way to bolster parliamentary capacities in Israel is to increase the size of the Knesset to at least 180, if not 240, members. When it was inaugurated in January 1949 it comprised 120 MKs – a symbolic number designed to provide continuity with the great Sanhedrin of the days of Ezra and Nehemia. At that time, Israel’s population barely reached 900,000. Seventy-three years later, its population has increased tenfold, to over 9,000,000. The size of the Knesset has remained the same – if it had kept up with population growth it would now number 1,200 members.

Indeed, Israel has one of the smallest parliaments in the world: Sweden, with a similar population, has a parliament of 344; Greece, with 10.7 million citizens, a 300-member house; Somalia’s 10.5 million have 275 representatives; Austria, with a population smaller than that of Israel, a parliament of 183 members. To be sure, there are parliaments similar in size to that of Israel, but these are mostly in countries with a much smaller population (Gabon, Lesotho, several pacific island states, and Iceland – which boasts the oldest parliament in the world, the Althing – whose 63-member body represents some 300,000 citizens).

Not only has Israel’s population grown exponentially over the years, it has also diversified significantly. This variation cannot be fully articulated in a small unicameral house, denying proper representation for many groups, perspectives and interests. At the same time, the range and complexity of the issues facing the Knesset have multiplied dramatically. It is impossible for such a small number of people, however dedicated or talented, to get a grasp of these topics, let alone develop any expertise on how they should be handled. A functioning legislative branch needs professionals, not just dilettantes who jump from subject to subject with abandon.

The price of propping up a flailing parliament

A larger house would therefore substantially improve committee work, hence reinvigorating both the legislative and oversight functions of Israel’s parliament. The practice of multiple committee memberships (some MKs now sit on four, five and even six standing committees) would then be abandoned, promoting some professionalization and continuity in committee work. And, importantly, such an enlargement would provide incentives to individual members to work harder in order to gain recognition and hence political support.

Reactions to such a proposal, first formally suggested by the Presidential Commission on Governmental Reform headed by Menahem Magidor fifteen years ago, have generally been lukewarm. With public confidence in the Knesset in continuous decline and respect for MKs at a low ebb, the thought of supporting a larger legislature has gained little traction. This resistance has been compounded by those who fear the cost of such a move (at least NIS 500,000,000 a year, if not more).

This financial opposition is, however, somewhat disingenuous: over the past two decades MKs have been given additional assistance to cope with their workload in the form of more parliamentary aides and tools; their perks have been increased substantially and their working conditions have been upgraded – all involving significant outlays. Far more significantly, it is useful to remember that the price of propping up a flailing parliament, however high, is much less than the very real costs of its collapse.

Only in the context of an expanded Knesset do any of the suggestions to alter the relationship between the parliament and the executive make any sense at all. The current brouhaha over the expansion of the so-called “Norwegian Law” (which is far from unique to Sweden and is actually embedded in its constitution) in reality skirts the real question of the balance of power between the branches of government. In parliamentary systems – including Israel – the government is selected by the elected representatives of the people, is subject to their scrutiny, and serves only as long as it enjoys their confidence.

Ministerial substitution is a stabilizing force

Some such systems, like those abiding by the British Westminster model (including Israel until 2015) are fused: ministers are mostly (if not entirely) drawn from the ranks of the members of parliament and are expected to fill both tasks. Many others, including Norway, Sweden, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Cameroon, Slovakia, and Benin (to mention but a few) are separated systems: ministers, upon appointment, are expected (and in some cases required by law) to resign from parliament and are replaced either by the next in line on their list or by elected substitutes. A variant of this arrangement was adopted in 2015 in Israel, revised in 2020 to accommodate concerns in the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition, and is now being further adapted to suit the needs of the incoming Bennett-Lapid coalition.

MP replacement mechanisms have several distinct advantages: They increase the number of working parliamentarians and free up time for ministers to concentrate on their jobs (in Israel the number of coalition MKs is extremely low and even with the Norwegian law they have more committee responsibilities than their opposition counterparts). They resolve the built-in conflict of interest that ministers might develop in their dual executive and legislative roles. They offer the possibility for the diversification of representation, especially for women who are generally placed in lower positions on their party lists (unless some gender parity is inserted in the order prior to elections, such as that adopted by Labor and Meretz).

This system does lead to a clearer separation of powers, thereby ensuring greater supervision of government actions and further fortifying the parliament.

Most significantly in the Israeli context, ministerial substitution injects a modicum of stability into the system. Alternates have little reason to rock the boat, and ministers are less inclined to resign and revert to their parliamentary role (in some countries, like the Netherlands, they are actually barred from doing so).

There are also problems with these arrangements, as Israel demonstrates. Resignations are often selective and made to soothe ruffled feathers, advance loyalists or address immediate political problems (an issue solved by mandating automatic resignations by all ministers in other countries). The question of price is inevitably raised by the opposition – even when it itself used the exact same techniques just months earlier.

The continuous reshuffles have, to date done little to boost trust in the Knesset, but that is perhaps due to the fact that the timing of these modifications is always related to coalition construction and not presented as a part of a more systematic structural reform. None of these issues are insurmountable. Their resolution is meaningful only when linked to the enlargement and bolstering of robust, inclusive, representative institutions for all citizens.

Parliamentary reform strengthens checks and balances and promotes greater diversity and hence equality. It contributes to governmental efficacy and encourages accountability and transparency. It is thus a necessary, but hardly sufficient, condition for grappling with the deep questions of identity, justice, freedom and equity that Israelis can no longer avoid. Without it, the country will implode; with it, it stands a chance of coming to terms with itself and its neighbors.

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.
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