Lawmakers advance ‘Norwegian Law’ to let parties replace ministers with more MKs

Opposition leader slams coalition for making proposal allowing parties to expand legislative footprint its top priority, rather than a measure helping those hurt by coronavirus

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset, May 17, 2020, after the new government was sworn in. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset, May 17, 2020, after the new government was sworn in. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

A bill allowing ministers to give up their positions as Knesset members in order to enable a different member of their party slate to take their spot in parliament passed its preliminary Knesset plenary reading Wednesday.

The proposal for the so-called Norwegian Law was approved 66 to 42 with no abstentions. The vote was the first victory for the new coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which was sworn in last week.

The bill must now face three further Knesset readings before being passed into law.

The law would allow any MK who is appointed to a cabinet post to resign temporarily from the Knesset, thereby permitting the next candidate on the party’s list to enter parliament in his or her stead. Under the bill’s new rules, if that minister later resigns from the cabinet, they would automatically return to the Knesset.

The proposal takes its name from Norwegian legislation mandating that all government ministers resign their seat in the parliament. That process is intended to create a separation of powers between the executive branch and the legislature.

The Israeli version, however, comes primarily in response to what many consider to be a short-handed Knesset, with a significant number of parliamentary seats effectively inactive because their holders are in the cabinet. Under current law, serving cabinet ministers are severely limited in their functions as MKs. They are not allowed to serve as speaker or deputy speaker, to sit on committees or even to propose bills.

A similar law allowing just one minister per party to resign was passed in the last Knesset, but did not apply to future governments.

Proposing the bill from the Knesset podium, Blue and White MK Ram Shefa said “this law has one essential purpose and that is to strengthen the Knesset and create a situation in which, after a year and a half without the functioning of the Knesset committees as the public needs them, we can finally establish the Knesset committees and at the same time create a situation in which there will be Knesset members who can fulfill their duties.”

But the opposition has blasted the bill, and the coalition’s rush to pass it, as a way of pushing more people into sweetheart jobs on the taxpayers’ dime.

Officially taking up his role as opposition leader, Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid slammed the proposal, criticizing the government for making it their first legislative priority.

“We gave you a chance to start with your right foot. To raise the unemployment benefit law for the self-employed today. We told you, let’s do it together,” he said from the Knesset podium before the vote on the bill. “Does anyone in your detached government remember where the money comes from? It’s people’s money. Employees, self-employed, taxpayers. You don’t see humans, you see ATMs.”

Cabinet ministers listen as Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz and cabinet secretary Tzahi Braverman speak at a first cabinet meeting, in the Chagall Hall of the Knesset, after the swearing-in of Israel’s new government, May 17, 2020 (GPO)

By definition, this legislative manpower problem is felt most acutely by the ruling coalition. The current 73-seat coalition must conduct its parliamentary work without the 33 lawmakers, a record high, serving in cabinet posts and up to 16 more in deputy ministerial positions. The 47-seat opposition suffers no such pressures.

Meanwhile, the 120-member strong Knesset is itself relatively small compared to the parliaments of similar-sized democracies. Austria, with roughly Israel’s population at 8.6 million, has a parliament with two houses and 245 members. Switzerland’s similarly bicameral federal legislature has 246 members serving its 8.2 million citizens. And Sweden, home to 9.8 million Swedes, has 349 lawmakers in its single house.

In Israel, the unity coalition deal ended over a year of political deadlock when the most minister-rich government in Israel’s history was sworn in last week. New ministerial positions were created to accommodate the cabinet’s ministers, who number over a quarter of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers.

The government launched with 33 cabinet ministers in addition to the prime minister. (An additional Blue and White minister has yet to be named.) The price tag for the overhead costs of the new government has been estimated as high as a billion shekels ($285 million). There have been widespread accusations that the government is overlarge and costly at a time when the economy is being ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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