Ulpana and the Silencing of the Knesset

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

It didn’t bring down the government, but the battle over Ulpana certainly tested it. The prime minister faced a revolt from his own party. Ministers were threatened with termination.

And, as the residents of Ulpana have not yet agreed to leave voluntarily, it’s possible that the drama isn’t over.

It was a saga in which no less than two branches of government had determinative roles. The Supreme Court took up the petition to remove the buildings in the first place. The government responded by adopting a blanket policy of removing buildings built on private property.

The court took the next step in setting a deadline for the removal. Soon, the government will execute the order, destroying the five apartment buildings and evicting the 30 families who call the buildings home.

One branch of government, however, was conspicuously silent: the Knesset. As the Knesset is the only publicly-elected branch of Israeli government, that silence portends poorly for Israel’s democracy.

The Knesset’s true role in the drama was the site of battle. It was there that two bills were proposed for a “regulation” or “arrangement” law, which would have reversed the government’s policy, caused the Supreme Court to reopen the case and perhaps save the homes. Under the proposed law, the actual owner of a property like the disputed plots in Ulpana, would be given compensation in the form of money or alternative land instead of retrieving the property itself. Both proposals had problems, but after the court refused to reopen the case, they were the only hope of saving the neighborhood and a large portion of the Knesset had voiced support for them.

But that support did not translate into Knesset action. First, the argument that the law meant overturning a Supreme Court decision and would harm Israel’s democracy softened support by painting those who supported the law as antidemocratic.

Then, a day before the vote, the Prime Minister ordered coalition discipline and threatened to fire ministers who voted in favor of the law—even in its preliminary reading. With a coalition of 94 Members of Knesset, 36 of whom are ministers and deputy ministers, this was enough to turn what might have been a majority in favor of the law into a majority against. The final tally was 22 in favor and 69 against. The rest, including many of the law’s initial supporters, absented themselves from the vote. Those who voted against comprised not only leftist members of the Coalition (e.g., Independence, Kadima) and the Opposition, but even several of the law’s sponsors, not to mention initial supporters.

NOT THAT there is anything new about the methods used to torpedo the bills. Coalition discipline has long been used by prime ministers to ensure their agendas are followed. Ariel Sharon fired ministers to ensure passage of his disengagement plan in the cabinet and the Supreme Court upheld the practice. And claiming (usually against the Right) that a proposal (lately ones affecting the judiciary) threatens Israeli democracy has long been a method of silencing opponents.

What’s troubling is that the success of these tactics demonstrates how the Knesset cannot, in practice, act in opposition to the government or the judiciary. Far from being the supreme branch of Israeli government as it should be in a democratic- parliamentary system, the Knesset is therefore the weakest.

This weakness stems in large part from the nature of Israeli government: the executive branch requires a coalition of a majority of the Knesset, so any bill which threatens coalition stability becomes artificially controversial; as the coalition comprises a majority of the Knesset, the government can use that majority to control the Knesset; and because MKs are not directly elected by the people, they are beholden to their party and its leaders, who often form the government.

The oft-suggested solution to Israel’s constitutional woes is raising the threshold for a party to enter the Knesset. While this might stabilize coalitions by lowering the number of parties needed to form one, it won’t strengthen the Knesset. To the extent that it would succeed in stabilizing a government, it would shift the balance of power further away from the Knesset. The alternative, albeit more sweeping solution of district-based elections, would also cut out minority parties, but it would also strengthen the legislature vis-à-vis the government, by tethering legislators to the people they represent instead of the parties which comprise the coalition.

An additional remedy would be adopting an “incompatibility” rule, present in several Western democracies, by which ministers relinquish their seats in the parliament, at least for the duration of their ministerial tenure. This would further disentangle the government and legislature and help ensure that Knesset members’ priorities lie with their legislative roles and not the government.

Whether the “arrangement law” would have made good policy or not, the spectacle of Knesset members flip-flopping to protect their jobs and of the Knesset failing to pass legislation that seemingly had widespread support only days before surely eroded public faith in Israel’s democracy.

For our government to maintain the public’s trust, the branch which represents the public needs to be independent and strong. Adopting radical changes like district elections and the incompatibility rule are necessary to make that happen.

This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post.

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