Ulpana and the silencing of the Knesset (JERUSALEM POST OP-ED) By DANIEL TAUBER 06/20/12)
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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
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
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
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
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
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.
The Writer is the executive director of Likud Anglos and an attorney
admitted to practice law in New York and Israel. (© 1995-2011, The
Jerusalem Post 06/20/12)
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