With Knesset in wartime recess, attendance becomes a political weapon

Despite mutual recriminations over attendance, MK Evgeny Sova says ‘in practice there isn’t that much of a recess,’ noting daily committee meetings over legislative break

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

The empty plenum hall of the Knesset in 2011 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The empty plenum hall of the Knesset in 2011 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Amid mass protests and fierce political opposition, the Knesset went on recess on Sunday, ostensibly giving lawmakers six weeks of time off in the middle of both a two-front shooting war and a burgeoning coalition crisis.

But while the legislature is technically no longer in session, many committees are still holding hearings. Now the identity of those present or absent from the building has become a tool for point-scoring between members of the coalition and opposition.

Speaking at the end of the winter session last Thursday, several lawmakers critical of the decision to halt legislative activity amid the war told The Times of Israel that they intended to remain present over the break.

“We’re not going on vacation,” declared MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, chair of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. “I already have hearings next week.”

While Yisrael Beytenu MK Evgeny Sova said it was unfortunate that the parliament’s House Committee voted to approve the break, “in practice, there isn’t that much of a recess because next week we have at least three days or parliamentary work in the Knesset.”

The main issue with the recess is that there are no plenum deliberations or votes, and thus no passing of legislation, but otherwise “I’m coming in as normal and continuing to work,” Sova pledged.

Plenum discussions and voting can still be held during the recess on urgent matters in specially called sessions.

Yisrael Beytenu member Evgeny Sova at a party event in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon on February 19, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Arguing that it was “neither reasonable nor logical” for lawmakers to take time off while 134 Israelis are held hostage in Gaza and Hezbollah rockets fall on the north, hawkish opposition politician Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party lobbied hard to allow the lawmakers to continue their normal legislative and oversight activities during the recess, which runs from April 7 to May 19.

Many members of the public agreed, with tens of thousands gathering in front of the Knesset last week to demand that as long as Israel’s hostages and soldiers do not receive a recess, neither should lawmakers.

Asked how it plans on operating during the recess, a Yisrael Beytenu spokesman stated that his party had not given up on holding plenum sessions, stating that it was currently gathering MKs’ signatures in order to force “an urgent discussion in the Knesset plenum on the issue of Israel’s security policy in the face of Iranian threats.”

Such rhetoric has drawn scorn from some members of the coalition, with MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, dismissing talk of working through the break as disingenuous.

“There are those who put up signs that they don’t have a break, and there are those who really don’t have a break,” Rothman tweeted, arguing that members of his hard-right Religious Zionism party were among the “most active” in the Knesset.

Rothman was referencing a series of tweets by Yesh Atid MKs in which they posted photos of signs on their office doors declaring that they would work through the break.

“During a war, when fighters have no rest, we will also be here,” wrote MK Ron Katz in a tweet typical of the party’s messaging.

Also critical of Yesh Atid’s stance was Likud MK Keti Shitrit — one of the lowest-ranking MKs in terms of attendance — who shot a video of herself knocking on Yesh Atid lawmakers’ doors, presumably to show that they were not present.

According to the resolution passed by the Knesset House Committee last month, Knesset committees will be allowed to meet four times each during the recess, while the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee will have no limitations placed on its activities.

Over the past four days, lawmakers have attended multiple hearings held by several different committees, including a preliminary discussion to prepare for the first reading of a bill to ban the UN agency UNRWA from operating on Israeli territory.

Yesh Atid, whose chairman Yair Lapid left on a trip to Washington over the weekend, bragged about its MKs’ attendance in an English-language Twitter thread on Thursday.

“Knesset Recess? Maybe for the coalition. But not for Yesh Atid,” it stated, noting that several of its lawmakers had attended sessions of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee as well as engaging in other work-related activities.

However, regardless of political orientation, Knesset attendance has plummeted since the beginning of the recess, with only 21 lawmakers physically present in the building on Wednesday afternoon — seven of them from the opposition and 14 from the coalition — giving each side ammunition to attack the other.

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