ISRAEL POLITICAL BRIEF
ISRAEL POLITICAL BRIEF: ISRAEL NEWS
The Work of the Knesset
Responsibilities, Roles and Authority
The Legislative Branch
The governing system in Israel is based on a separation between its three branches: Legislative, executive and judicial. The Knesset – the Israeli house of representatives – is the legislative authority and the sole authority with the power of legislation. It also has a constituent role in the creation of a constitution for the State of Israel. The Knesset also supervises the work of the government (the executive branch) and carries out given several quasi-judicial roles. As an electorate body, the Knesset elects the President of the State and the State Comptroller. The Knesset has 120 members, and it is located in Jerusalem.
Members of the Knesset are not elected directly by voters. They run as candidates within the framework of lists participating in the elections. Article 4 of the Basic Law: The Knesset determines that the elections to the Knesset are general, national, direct, equal, secret and proportional elections. The Knesset is elected for a four-year period, but it may decide to dissolve itself and call for early elections. The Knesset is also dissolved if the State Budget is not approved within three months of the beginning of the fiscal year, or if the Prime Minister recommends dissolution and the President accepts his recommendation because the majority of members oppose the government, thereby impairing its ability to function.
In accordance with the Basic Law: The Government, Members of the Knesset may request, with the consent of at least 40 Knesset members, to summon the Prime Minister to a debate in the plenum on a subject of their choice. This motion can be done once per month at the most.
In accordance with the Basic Law: The Government, the Knesset can bring about the resignation of the government by endorsing a no-confidence motion in the plenum. A no-confidence motion names a potential candidate for establishing a government, and it can be approved only with an absolute majority of 61 Knesset members. Once the no-confidence motion is passed, the government becomes a transitional government until elections are held and a new government is formed.
Reports of the State Comptroller, who also serves as Ombudsman, are discussed in the State Control Committee and in the Knesset plenum. These reports deal with selected issues that are the responsibility of the government, local authorities, military, persons and bodies acting on behalf of the state, institutions, funds and any other authority run by the government, as well as each body funded by the government and subject to inspection by law.
The Knesset also holds ceremonial functions, such as the swearing-in of a new president and the hosting of foreign leaders and the heads of international parliamentary institutions.
Members of the Knesset are representatives of the people, and they represent the parties on behalf of which they were elected. Following the elections, Members of the Knesset act within the framework of parliamentary groups (sometimes called “factions”). Parliamentary groups have the flexibility to split or merge during a Knesset’s term. The groups and the Knesset members represent a wide variety of positions and opinions on political, financial, social and other matters. These stands and opinions are expressed during plenum and committee sittings and their resolutions.
Parliamentary groups are divided into members of the coalition who are supportive of the government, and those who are members of the opposition and generally oppose the government. However, members of the coalition may vote against the government and members of the coalition may vote in its favor. In order for the government to function properly and to continue to exist, the number of Knesset members who support the government must exceed the number of those who oppose it.
The Prime Minister must be a member of the Knesset, as do deputy ministers. Ministers are not obligated to be Knesset members.
The role of a Knesset member is not defined in laws or regulations. Each member is supposed to represent his faction during his parliamentary activities. They must obey the rules of ethics imposed by the Knesset and abide by the instructions of the Knesset Speaker.
A 2005 amendment to the Knesset Members (Immunity, Rights and Duties) Law, 5711 – 1951, states that the Attorney General may indict a Member of the Knesset without requesting the removal his immunity. If the accused Knesset member insists on maintaining his immunity, he may ask the House Committee to resolve the issue and bring a recommendation before a final decision is made by the plenum.
An amendment to the law from 1995 prohibits Knesset members to engage in any business or additional occupation, and imposes strict limitations on voluntary work.
Many Members of the Knesset are members of parliamentary lobbies for social (e.g. Higher Education, Public Health, Culture and Arts), economic (e.g. Consumers, Galilee and the Negev) and political (e.g. Golan Heights, Judea and Samaria, Evacuation of Settlements, Releasing of Pollard) issues.
The first sitting of the Knesset following elections is opened by the President of the State, who bestows the most senior Knesset member with the role of administering the sitting, and conducts the declaration of allegiance ceremony of the Knesset members. In their declaration, members of the Knesset pledge to safeguard the State of Israel and to fulfill faithfully their mission in the Knesset.
The first task of a newly elected Knesset is, customarily, the election of a Speaker from among its members. The Speaker of the Knesset is elected for the whole term of that Knesset. His main functions are to manage the affairs of the Knesset and represent it externally.
Up to eight members are elected soon thereafter to serve as deputy speakers. The Speaker and deputies (together called the “Presidium”) set the schedule of the Plenum, approve parliamentary questions, motions for the agenda, private members’ bills and other issues presented for debate. The Speaker or one of his deputies presides over the sittings of the Plenum, puts bills to a vote, and determines the results of these votes. The Speaker of the Knesset is granted the authorities of command and arrest within the Knesset. The Knesset Guard, directed by the Knesset Sergeant-at-Arms, follows the speaker’s orders regarding organization and discipline. In the absence of the President of the State from the country, the Speaker serves as acting president.
The Knesset’s work is conducted according to its own set Rules of Procedure. These rules are complemented by various precedents, such as decisions made by the Speaker and his deputies, and they are interpreted by the Interpretations Committee. Each change made to the Rules of Procedure must be approved by the House Committee and by the Plenum.
|The Knesset Plenum on the opening day of
the Seventeenth Knesset, April 17, 2006
The Knesset Plenum is the central body of the Knesset, and has the highest authority within it. It is comprised of 120 Members of the Knesset, though a minimal quorum is not required in order to hold sittings. Discussions in the plenum concern bill proposals, motions for the agenda, parliamentary questions to government ministers, no-confidence motions in the government, as well as various political, social and economic issues on the public agenda. Decisions by the plenum are approved by a regular or simple majority, unless a law specifies the need for greater support (such as that of an absolute majority).
The government suggests a large part of the Plenum’s agenda, but its schedule is finalized by the Knesset Presidium. One of the weekly sittings is dedicated to motions for the agenda raised by Knesset members and for private members’ bills. In recent Knessets, there has been an increase in the ratio of legislation derived from private members’ bills.
Knesset sittings are normally held every week from Monday through Wednesday. The time devoted to each subject is determined by the House Committee and divided proportionally between the parliamentary groups. Discussions held on a non-parliamentary group basis, such as a first reading on a bill, are divided equally between Knesset members who wish to speak.
Sittings are held in Hebrew, and members of the Knesset are also given the right to speak in Arabic and have their speeches translated into Hebrew. The use of other languages is permitted only for foreign visitors who address the Knesset. The Knesset normally holds one session each year, divided to summer and winter assemblies, which amounts to eight months of work. The government is entitled to summon a sitting during the Knesset’s recess, and the Knesset members themselves may convene a sitting as long as it is requested by at least 25 members.
All plenum sittings are broadcast by the Knesset TV Channel.
|A committee room in the new Kedma Wing|
The Knesset Committees carry out much of the Knesset’s work. They are presented subjects that require professional and thorough discussion, each within their fields of interest. There are 12 standing committees in the Knesset: House Committee; Finance Committee; Economic Affairs Committee; Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee; Education, Culture, and Sports Committee; Internal Affairs and Environment Committee; Constitution, Law and Justice Committee; State Control Committee; Committee on the Status of Women; Science and Technology Committee; Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs; and the Labor, Welfare, and Health Committee.
The factional makeup of the committees is parallel to the parliamentary groups’ proportional size in the Knesset. The Arrangements Committee decides on their composition and chairmanship immediately following the elections. Chairpersons of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the Finance Committee are always members of the coalition, while the chairperson of the State Control Committee is a member of the opposition. The coalition has a majority in all committees and the members are usually instructed with parliamentary group discipline.
The functions of the standing committees are as follows: To discuss bills after they have passed preliminary and first readings and to prepare them for the next stages of legislation; to deal with motions for the agenda that have been passed on to them by the plenum, or with urgent motions passed on by the Knesset presidium, and to draft their recommendations; to discuss regulations that require their approval; to handle requests by citizens addressed to the Knesset or to the government; and to deal with any matter which the Knesset may decide to pass on to them as well as with matters initiated by the committee itself.
Legislation requires constant consultation with legal and economic advisors. The legal department of the Knesset accompanies the process of legislation throughout its development from an idea to a proposed bill, through discussion in the committees and up to the formation of the final draft presented for the vote. The Research and Information Center of the Knesset supplies the committees with research and information services needed in their work on legislation, supervision over the executive branch (the government) and debates on matters of public interest.
Professional discourse in the committees is supplemented by experts, and the committee may also summon officials and persons connected to the issue being discussed. By law, committees can oblige ministers, and even the prime minister, to appear before them. This right of summons is one of the checks and balances the legislature has over the executive branch.
The committees may set up sub-committees for particular matters, and the Knesset Plenum or House Committee may decide to set up joint committees made up of members from two committees or more.
Special Knesset Committees function in a similar manner to the standing committees, but have a limited term of office. Committees of this kind in the Eighteenth Knesset are the Committee on Drug Abuse, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the Committee for Foreign Workers.
Other committees include the Ethics Committee and the Interpretations Committee. The Ethics Committee is responsible for the jurisdiction over Knesset Members who have violated rules of ethics in the Knesset or who have acted in deviant manners. It may place various sanctions on a Knesset member, such as admonition, suspension from plenum sittings, revoking the right to speak in the plenum or in committees, and prohibiting a Member of Knesset from proposing a bill or presenting a motion for the agenda. It may also withhold a Member of Knesset’s salary or other payments due to multiple unjustified absences. The Ethics Committee is comprised of four Knesset members, who are elected by the Speaker and represent different parliamentary groups.
The Interpretations Committee deals with appeals against the interpretation given by the Speaker plenum to the Knesset Rules of Procedure or precedents set by the Speaker during a plenum sitting. The Committee is made up of the Speaker and eight Knesset members chosen by the House Committee.
According to the Basic Law: The Knesset, the Knesset holds a constitutional mandate to appoint Parliamentary Inquiry Committees. These committees, which may also be assigned to members of an existing standing committee, deal with subjects regarded by the Knesset as having special national importance.
Some of the committee meetings are available online and the public can take part in them through the Knesset website. The Knesset TV Channel also broadcasts selected committee meetings.
The Knesset Rules of Procedure is a collection of regulations and guidelines formed by the Knesset and is aimed at regulating its work procedures. Amendments to the rules are approved by the Knesset plenum.
The Knesset Rules of Procedure, decisions on matters of procedure, rules of ethics for members of the Knesset, and resolutions of the Ethics Committee, may be seen at the Knesset website: http://www.knesset.gov.il/rules/eng/contents.htm.
The Secretary General of the Knesset, who is appointed by the Knesset Speaker and his deputies, oversees and manages the parliamentary functions of the Knesset. The Secretary General, or one of his deputies, is present in the Knesset plenum when it is in session. His task during the sitting is to advise the Speaker on matters of the Rules of Procedure and on custom, and to manage the list of Knesset members slated to speak. He is also responsible for the liaison between the Knesset and the government. Among his roles are: Overseeing that adequate and fair treatment is given to the parliamentary groups; handling matters related to elections, overseeing international treaties and overseeing their progress before being ratified by the government. The Secretary General is a member of the Association of Secretaries-General of Parliaments.
The Director General is responsible for the administrative aspects of the Knesset. His roles include keeping administrative order in the Knesset building, overseeing the work of the Knesset employees, and supervising the logistic management of the Knesset. Until the year 2006, these tasks were part of the responsibilities of the Secretary General of the Knesset. In 2006, following the election of MK Dalia Itzik as Speaker of the Seventeenth Knesset, she decided to divide the responsibilities into two separate roles: The Secretary General
|Knesset Honor Guard, January 26, 1959|
is responsible for the parliamentary functions of the Knesset, and the Director General is responsible for the administrative and logistic operations of the Knesset.
The Knesset maintains constant interaction with other parliamentary houses worldwide. These relations are expressed by mutual visits and exchange of information on fields relating to parliamentary work.
The Knesset is a member of the Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) and sends observers on its behalf to sittings of the European Parliament’s General Assembly, the European Council and to other parliamentary gatherings of international organizations. The Knesset also operates approximately 60 parliamentary friendship unions with parliaments in other countries.
The Knesset building and its complex are under immunity, which means that there is specific legislation that directs the authority of enforcement within the complex and authority to grant permission to use the buildings. The area in front of the Knesset’s main entrance can house protests. The responsibility on keeping discipline, order and safety lies with the Knesset Guard and the ushers unit.