ISRAEL DEMOCRACY INSTITUTE — As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu begins negotiations on a new coalition following the April 9 elections, and with the newly elected members of the 21st Knesset to be sworn in April 30, how did the previous parliament, which was sworn in on March 31, 2015, perform?
Ostensibly, it did a lot of work in the years before its dissolution on December 26, 2018 — with over 6,600 bills submitted. Except that fewer than 10 percent of them became law.
MKs submitted over 5,000 parliamentary queries — so vast a number as to make it difficult to relate to them seriously.
The opposition submitted 218 motions of no-confidence in the government. They all failed.
So was it all a tale of quality over quantity? Based on data from the Knesset archives and the Knesset’s Research and Information Center, this article attempts to find out.
Bill Proposals and Laws
Compared with other parliaments in the world, the Knesset has seen a sharp increase in the number of private member bills submitted since the early 2000s, and this trend was even more keenly seen in the 20th Knesset. A total number of 6,644 bills were proposed, of which only 593 (9%) were passed into law. A deeper examination of the proposals according to submitters revealed extensive disparities in the number of proposals that are actually passed into law: whereas 57% of government bills and 67% of committee bills were passed into law, only 4% of private members bills passed into law.
Thus, most of the private member bills remain nothing more than “Bill Declarations,” whose main purpose is to generate public and media interest, and not necessarily to generate discussion and certainly not to be passed into law.
There are many negative aspects to this practice of proposing thousands of Bills as seen both in the parliamentary sphere and beyond: Making a mockery of the value of private member bills; hampering the quality and implementation of the legislation because in many cases, MKs are paying more attention to the quantity and less to the quality of the legislation; wasting the professional human resources of the Knesset and the government; flooding the Knesset committees with private member bills and increasing their work burden; and the inability of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation to hold thorough discussions on so many proposals because of the short time allocated to such discussions.
Compared to previous Knessets, the 20th leads the way in the number of proposed private member bills. The number of such bills that were passed into law has gradually decreased and in the last seven Knesset terms, stood at an average of only 5%.
In no other democratic parliament does the number of private member bills even approach those seen in Israel’s Knesset, as shown in the table below, with data taken from various parliaments for the years 2000-2016.
One of the oldest and most popular ways of being a watchdog to the Knesset and the government is by submitting parliamentary queries. The Opposition makes most use of this tool since it enables them to table questions and raise issues to ministers.
There are three categories of queries: Regular questions which must be answered in the plenum within 21 days. MKs are permitted to submit up to 30 such queries per session (parliamentary year). Direct queries which must be answered in writing within 21 days. MKs are permitted to submit up to 80 such queries per session (parliamentary year); and urgent queries, which must be answered within the week they are tabled. The Knesset Speaker authorizes up to four such queries per week.
In the 20th Knesset, 5,756 queries were tabled, of which 4,712 (81%) were answered. Among the queries that went unanswered, the majority (18%) were left to be taken care of by the ministries and, for a few, a date was set for an answer, or the Minister refused to provide an answer (1%). It should be emphasized that the efficiency of this watchdog tool is doubtful because the period of time allowed for providing an answer to a query is lengthy, especially given the pace of events and fast flow of information in today’s era.
Moreover, the queries do not have any practical impact on those who are supposed to provide answers. The queries often contain unreliable information (many of them are based on media reports) and the exceedingly large number of queries makes it impossible to relate to them seriously.
The table below shows that prior to the 20th Knesset, the quantity of queries tabled in the plenum (ordinary queries) decreased.
However, from 2015 the use of this tool gradually increased. It is possible that this increase indicates that some of the MKs in the outgoing Knesset showed a greater orientation to be watchdogs.
According to the Knesset’s Rules of Procedure, the Knesset committee arranges ten one-hour question and answer meetings per session, when MKs can ask the Prime Minister or any other minister questions about their realm of responsibility.
However, question hour only occurred ten times in the second and third sessions of the Knesset, in the fourth session it took place six times and in the fifth session (until the Knesset was dissolved) it did not take place at all, a finding which demonstrates that the MKs did not take full advantage of this opportunity.
Debate in the Presence of the Prime Minister (with 40 signatories)
Section 42 of the Basic Law: The government states that if 40 MKs sign a request, the Knesset is permitted to arrange a debate on a certain issue and require the Prime Minister’s attendance. Such requests may only be made once a month. The Knesset rules state that the PM must be present throughout the debate. This is definitely a tool for the Opposition.
During the 20th Knesset, only seven such debates took place, out of many more that Opposition members could have initiated. The result is that the Opposition hardly took advantage of this tool.
Section 28 of the Basic Law: The government states that the Knesset is permitted to table a no-confidence motion in the government. This may be done if the majority of MKs (61 and more) vote for no-confidence as part of a fully constructive no-confidence motion. This vote also entails a vote of confidence in an alternative government which presents the fundamental outlines of its policies, its make-up and the division of ministries among its members.
In the 20th Knesset, the Rules of Procedure were amended, and an ordinance was passed stating that from May 2016, a cap was placed on the number of no-confidence motions the Opposition was allowed to table, and in return, question hour in the presence of the Prime Minister and other Ministers was fixed. The Opposition parties tabled a total of 218 no-confidence motions in the government which were obviously all defeated. A comparison with previous Knessets shows that limiting the number of no-confidence motions that may be tabled did indeed reduce the number.
Speeches in the Plenum
MKs, Ministers, Deputy Ministers who are not MKs, and other officials specified in the Knesset’s Rules of Procedure are permitted to give a speech in the plenum on various topics. In the 20th Knesset, Meretz used this tool more than any other party.
The average number of speeches given in the plenum by Meretz MKs was the highest, almost five times as much, on average, than Likud and Jewish Home MKs, who were ranked in bottom place.
On Monday and Tuesday mornings, MKs may speak in the plenum for no more than one minute on any subject of their choice. Use of this tool, which is not capped in quantity, can be used by any MK so long as they do not exceed the time limit or do not speak more than once in each sitting.
Although these speeches are not necessarily a watchdog tool, and MKs who serve as ministers or deputy ministers can also take advantage of this option, nevertheless members of the Opposition parties used this tool to a very great extent in the 20th Knesset.
Of the ten MKS who gave the most one-minute speeches, five are members of the Joint List (the party whose members used this tool more often than any other party) and only one is a member of the coalition (Anat Berko).
The following chart shows that the number of one-minute speeches given in the 20th Knesset was far higher in comparison to previous Knessets. In general, a gradual increase in the use of this tool has been seen since 2003.
Motions for the Agenda
MKs not serving as ministers or deputy ministers may propose the inclusion of any subject in the Knesset’s agenda. Although MKs table motions for the agenda in a personal capacity, there is a cap on the number of ordinary motions that each party may table (in each session, the Knesset committee fixes this number). In addition, MKs may place a request with the Knesset presidium for their motion to be tabled as an urgent motion for the agenda (only one such urgent motion per week may be authorized per MK). As opposed to ordinary motions, urgent motions are excluded from the number of motions allocated to each party, and the Knesset presidium determines the permitted number.
Dov Khenin of the Joint List made the greatest use of this tool (as well as giving the greatest number of speeches in the plenum).
Punishment by the Knesset Ethics Committee
The Ethics Committee functions under the authority of Section 13d of the Law of Immunity of Knesset Members, their Rights and Obligations, 1951. Four MKs who are appointed by the Speaker of the Knesset sit on this committee – two each from coalition and opposition parties. The Speaker also appoints the chairperson.
Committee members give both ethical guidance to MKs, as well as guidelines and responses to queries from MKs in matters of ethics, judging MKs for failing to obey rules of ethics, or for ethical infringement of laws, including illegally holding another position, exceeding the number of permitted days of absence from the plenum, or failure to declare capital. The committee also approves MKs trips abroad that are not financed by the Knesset or self-financed, such as travelling to give a lecture or participate in a conference. Within the framework of its responsibility, the Ethics Committee may place various sanctions on a Knesset member. These sanctions include a comment, an admonition, a reprimand, or a severe reprimand. Similarly, the committee may place restrictions on a Knesset member’s parliamentary activity.
In the 20th Knesset, the Ethics Committee found it necessary to punish 29 MKs, some more than once. A total of 48 punishments were handed out, 12 were suspensions from the plenum for periods ranging from ten days to six months, and nine suspensions of salary for periods ranging from one day to one week. In addition, the committee also handed out punishments of admonitions and severe reprimands. Six of these punishments were handed out to MKs serving as ministers. Two of the six were given for failing to attend the plenum for the minimum number of times required.
Suspension of an MK’s parliamentary activity seems to be the most serious punishment, as it prevents them from fulfilling the very essence of their position – serving the public. During the 20th Knesset, seven MKs were reprimanded in this way. The three MKs suspended for the longest time were: Oren Hazan of the Likud party (total of 37 weeks), Basel Ghattas of the Joint List (total of 26 weeks) and Jamal Zahalka of the Joint List (total of 13 weeks). Ayman Odeh and Hanin Zoabi, of the Joint List, and Stav Shafir and Michal Rozin of the Zionist Union were each suspended for one week.
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