Reporter's notebook'It feels like the first day of school'

Knesset newbies day: Civics lessons, car choices, and a plea to serve the public

Before 21st Knesset officially begins, parliament’s fresh faces receive a crash course on lawmaking and get to enjoy their new seats… with one exception

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

New Knesset members from the Blue and White pose in their newly allocated Knesset plenary seats, April 29, 2019. At right is Miki Haimovich. (Noam Moscowitz/Knesset)
New Knesset members from the Blue and White pose in their newly allocated Knesset plenary seats, April 29, 2019. At right is Miki Haimovich. (Noam Moscowitz/Knesset)

With newly elected Knesset members set to receive their state-funded cars and courtesy drivers only after Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony, MKs-to-be were forced to make their own travel arrangements to the parliament Monday for a day of training before officially becoming legislators.

Having likewise yet to be assigned parking spaces, most parked their cars, ranging from shiny Land Rovers to at least one bashed-up 2010 Ford Focus (almost identical to this reporter’s vehicle, which happened to be parked in the adjacent space), in the visitors’ section of the Knesset’s underground parking. Blue and White rookie Merav Cohen, a Jerusalem resident, arrived on foot with a backpack over her shoulder. “This is how I normally come to work,” the former Jerusalem city council member said cheerfully on arrival.

But as they entered the storied building that will be their office for up to the next four-and-a-half years, all of the incoming lawmakers were treated as Israel’s democracy sees them: equally. Greeted by Knesset ushers and parliamentary tour guides, they were each given the same Knesset-branded bag (Cohen needn’t have brought her own) containing the same material: the 300-page book of Knesset bylaws, a specially prepared guide to the legislative process, a list of Knesset contacts, various employee work forms, an extensive list of the benefits to which they are entitled, and a booklet detailing their courtesy car options.

Details of the wider perks of being one of the chosen 120 would come later in the day. First, there was an intense schedule of advanced civics lessons given by, among others, the Knesset speaker, the Knesset secretary general and the Knesset chief legal adviser.

“Tomorrow is the big day,” said Labor’s number two, ex-general Tal Russo, “but today is needed so that we can start the work properly. This is vital.”

“It feels like the first day of school,” Union of Right-Wing Parties almost-MK Idit Silman said, as various new recruits greeted each other with hugs and high-fives, some of them meeting for the first time since they’d debated each other on panels during the election campaign. “We are all new, we are all learning,” Silman said.

New MKs at an orientation day at the Knesset, April 29, 2019. (Noam Moscowitz/Knesset)

A striking 49 first-time MKs will be sworn in on Tuesday, overtaking the 48 newbies in 2013, and making it the freshest-faced Knesset since Israel’s very first elections (which, obviously, holds an unbeatable record).

Nearly half of the freshman class hail from Benny Gantz’s newly formed Blue and White party, only 11 of whose 35 incoming MKs served in the previous Knesset (all as Yesh Atid MKs). The situation is almost exactly reversed for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, which sees 12 new lawmakers out of 36.

Amid the high turnover, 13 new female MKs are entering the Knesset, contributing to a matched-record high of 2015’s 29 total women, a noteworthy number considering the fact that the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are ideologically opposed to women serving as lawmakers and therefore have none in their combined tally of 16 seats. The number however, falls short of the 36 women in the outgoing Knesset. (Seven female lawmakers entered as replacements during the four-year life of the 20th Knesset.)

New MKs at an orientation day at the Knesset, April 29, 2019. (Noam Moscowitz/Knesset)

While most of the new cadre, men and women, turned up for Monday’s orientation day, not every new recruit felt they needed a beginners’ course. The three most prominent absentees were Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz and his party number three and fellow former army chief Gabi Ashkenazi, and Labor party head Avi Gabbay. While Gabbay served as a minister during part of the last government and as Labor leader since 2017, Tuesday will be the first time he utters the words “I swear” in response to the obligations of office included in the parliament’s swearing-in declaration.

Opening the day, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who is expected to be voted in to his third term as speaker immediately after the opening ceremony Tuesday, told the newcomers that their chief obligation must be to the voters who sent them here.

“I suggest that everyone take a moment on his own and think about why they came to the Knesset and for what purpose they are here. Once you have a clear answer on the matter, you will already see that everything is at your disposal and you can achieve the goal,” he told his future colleagues, of whom he is the first among equals. “The common goal of all of us here will be to serve the public that sent you and I wish success to all of you.”

Speaking from the podium in the seldom-used Knesset basement auditorium, not from his seat of honor in the plenum three floors up, Edelstein issued a specific plea to the lawmakers for when they do enter the parliament hall. “Only propose bills that have a chance to move forward; not every proposal justifies the resources and the cost to the taxpayer,” he said.

Knesset speaker Yuli Edlestein addresses new MKs, April 29, 2019. (Noam Moscowitz/Knesset)

In the 20th Knesset, MKs submitted over 5,000 parliamentary queries — “so vast a number as to make it difficult to relate to them seriously,” according to researchers from the Israel Democracy Institute.

A study released this month by the organization found that, relative to 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 showed that whereas 57% of government bills and 67% of committee bills were passed, only 4% of private member bills became 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, the study concluded.

“I am not here to ask you to not legislate,” the speaker stressed. “Legislate! But look at the big picture.”

Highlighting his speaker’s role rather than his Likud loyalties, he also urged the new MKs to take an active part in the Knesset’s role as overseer of the government. “This is not a matter of coalition or opposition – it is the job of all of those who are here to monitor the government’s work at all times,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein arrive for a joint event of the Knesset and the US Congress, celebrating 50 years since Jerusalem’s reunification, at the Chagall state hall in the Knesset, on June 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

On Sunday, Netanyahu said he would back Edelstein to retain the post which he has held since 2013. This came despite some tension between the two: During February’s Likud party primaries, Netanyahu declined to endorse Edelstein in his recommendations to voters, with some reports suggesting the prime minister feared the Knesset speaker would, as he possibly indicated with his “monitor the government” comment Monday, not toe the line. (Edelstein came top in the primaries anyway.)

After the initial buzz of the day, Knesset Secretary General Yardena Miller-Horovitz followed Edelstein’s session with a sharp reality check, detailing procedural rules of committees and the parliamentary tools — private member bills, by-law amendments, motions for the agenda, one-minute speeches, non-urgent ministerial questions, urgent ministerial questions and more and more and more — at MKs’ disposal. Assaf Zamir, who was snapped snoozing through Miller-Horovitz’s session, was apparently already exemplifying that Knesset life may not always be as explosive as the fireworks from the Knesset Channel’s TV highlights reel.

Knesset chief legal adviser Eyal Yinon continued the formalities with a lecture on the legal aspects of the legislative process, as well as on what the novice MKs are allowed (and not allowed) to do — at least in terms of ethics and the shield of immunity. For example, using their position to demand an upgrade on a flight would be forbidden, he noted, a point that spurred sarcastic murmurs from some Blue and White members relating to the three corruption cases facing Netanyahu. “But you can’t smoke cigars in coach,” an unidentified newbie could be heard quipping weakly.

New MKs at an orientation day at the Knesset, April 29, 2019. (Noam Moscowitz/Knesset)

Perhaps referring to the prime minister himself, Yinon said that there would be a separate seminar “for rookie and veteran MKs” on the specifics of their parliamentary immunity and its legal limitations. (The legal adviser is no doubt acutely aware of the declared plans by some to change the law offering immunity from prosecution for MKs in order, allegedly, to protect Netanyahu from prosecution.)

Next, with Zamir awake at this point, the newbies were told the specific benefits that taxpayers would be giving them along with their $12,000 (NIS 44,000) monthly salaries: a spending allowance of up to $13,000 (NIS 49,000) per year for maintaining an office outside the Knesset; funding to hire up to two aides; an executive cars of their choice… and adjustment grants (tied to the number of years they served in the Knesset) for when they depart from the legislature.

They were not given official fashion advice to help them spend their $1,000 per month wardrobe stipend. But some were warned by their own parties that from Tuesday they’d need to dress the part. “You’d better not come to the plenum in jeans!” Hadash-Ta’al faction manager Medalia Bakar was overheard telling new party representative Ofer Kassif, who was wearing sun-bleached denims.

New Knesset members take their seats for the first time in the Knesset plenum, April 29, 2019. (Noam Moscowitz/Knesset)

After the lectures, various administrative tasks, a tour of the refurbished parliament building, and, of course, lunch in the exclusive Knesset members’ cafeteria, the group of rookies were finally led to what many saw as the highlight of the day and the focal point of their work: the plenary hall and the seats they will warm starting Tuesday.

With the official seating positions for the 21st Knesset published for the first time as they entered the hallowed hall, the fledgling lawmakers got a glimpse of their soon-to-be-official status as parliamentarians, as well as their parties’ updated post-election status. The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism are now both sitting on the main coalition benches to the right of the hall, having each won eight seats and been upgraded from the seating at the back shared by coalition and opposition MKs. Their old seats will now be filled by the depleted Labor delegation — down from 24 seats to its worst-ever election result of just six, and thus demoted from the frontline opposition benches.

The seating plan for the 21st Knesset. (Knesset)

“This is the center of where it all happens. This is where democracy takes place,” Likud newbie Michal Shir told The Times of Israel, pointing at the voting buttons on the desk at her allocated seat.

Reveling in the moment, some joked as they milled around the plenum that after their impromptu photo ops in their new Knesset seats, they could go back home without serving in parliament at all. Others said they’d rather be sitting around the cabinet table.

New Knesset members from the Blue and White party sit for the first time in the Knesset plenary seats, April 29, 2019. Standing, in red, is Miki Haimovich. (Noam Moscowitz/Knesset)

While most were excited to snap photos of each other in their plush newly upholstered leather chairs, one incoming MK was not impressed, however, and refused to so much as take her seat.

In a letter to Edelstein sent immediately after the end of the orientation day, Blue and White’s Miki Haimovich, an environmental activist and a vegan, articulated her moral objections to the meat industry and requested that the leather chair she is set to occupy be switched.

“The thought of sitting all the hours I would be in the Knesset plenum on such a chair is insufferable,” Haimovich wrote. “In the future it might be worthy in principle to consider switching all the seats in the Knesset plenum to those that are not made from the skin of animals.”

A Knesset source, noting similar past requests, said it was unlikely that the chair would be reupholstered.

When Haimovich comes back into the plenary on Tuesday, and the 48 other rookies and 71 returning veterans join her to be sworn in as lawmakers, she may be left standing. At least when she leaves the Knesset after the ceremony, she will able to do so in one of the environmentally friendly cars detailed in the booklet in her new Knesset-branded bag.

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