Proposals for Israeli political reform–again

One thing I like about following Israeli politics is that there is no lack of willingness to propose institutional reforms to deal with (real or perceived) problems of governance. They are not always good ideas (see the term limit proposal proposed by a party in the outgoing coalition), but it is good that there is a willingness to debate ideas for political reform.

A news update from the TOI today mentions a couple that are in play during the current election campaign. The National Unity Party, led by Benny Gantz and Gideon Saar, is proposing to (1) require more than an absolute majority for the Knesset to dissolve1 itself, and (2) not make the failure to pass a budget a cause for automatic dissolution.

The second of these is an excellent idea, and I have thought for some time this should be changed. The problem with the current provision was on display in 2020 when then-PM Benjamin Netanyahu prevented the alternation of the premiership to which he had agreed from going ahead by withholding votes for the budget, thereby forcing an early election and breakup of the “unity” government. That the planned alternation would have been to Gantz is surely why the latter now wants to change this provision. Regardless of motive and experience of the proposer, the idea is sound. While it may seem straightforward that the inability to pass a budget is evidence of a lack of parliamentary confidence, it need not be so. I believe there are other parliamentary systems that can run on an automatic “continuing resolution” (borrowing a term from US politics), at least for a set period of time, if no new budget has been agreed. It is sensible as a way to prevent coalition partners from forcing an early election “passively” as opposed to actively attaining a majority for dissolution or government replacement.

As for the supermajority–specifically 70 members (58.3%)–to dissolve, the idea goes well with the proposal on the budget, and more importantly with the existing constructive vote of no confidence. Under the latter rule, in place since around 2015, the Knesset majority is not able to vote to dismiss the government unless there are 61 votes for a specific alternative. The new provisions proposed by National Unity would cement the notion that the government remains until the Knesset votes in an alternative (or the regular term ends).

Provisions for a parliament to dissolve itself are not the norm. Israel is an unusual case in this respect as far as I know.2 It is probably permitted elsewhere (see the Early Parliamentary General Election Act passed in the UK in 2019) if not specifically prohibited, but I am not sure I could name another case where a common path to an early election is the parliamentary majority passing a law to set a new election. Regarding having a super-majority vote to set an election, it is reminiscent of the debates leading up to the Fixed Term Parliament Act passed by the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition in the UK in 2011.3

The TOI update also notes another proposal, this one from the Yisrael Beiteinu party (Avigdor Liberman). It would require at least 90 members of the Knesset to bring down a government within two years of its formation. That’s a 75% majority requirement! The TOI says the first proposal of National Unity mentioned above is “similar” to this one from YB. But it is not similar! A super-majority for dissolution of the Knesset is consistent with the parliamentary form of government. A super-majority for dismissal of a cabinet is contrary to the very core of the parliamentary principle. I do not know where else such provisions can be found, other than Papua New Guinea4–not normally a shining model of effective governance that others seek to emulate.

The constructive vote of no confidence already introduces some potential for separation of powers (more to the point, of separation of purpose) in that a government potentially can face majority opposition yet remain in office. Yet it preserves the core of the parliamentary principle by ensuring that if a majority of the voters’ elected representatives prefers a different coalition be in power, it can proceed immediately to enforce its preference. Shielding a government from such majority preference, and allowing it to govern for up to two years unless a very substantial super-majority votes it out, is a recipe not for stability but for deadlock.

Gantz’s two reform ideas are promising. Liberman’s is very bad.

____

Notes

  1. As I have probably said before, technically the Knesset is never dissolved. It continues to hold legislative authority, albeit normally remains out of session, between the calling of an early (or regular) election and the installation of the new Knesset after the election. Lacking a good alternative term, I will go on calling it “dissolution.”
  2. Papua New Guinea has such a provision, I learned as I was drafting this. See Article 105.1.c: an absolute majority of parliament may vote to dissolve.
  3. The Johnson government repealed it with the passage of The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022.
  4. See the PNG constitution, Article 145.4: “A motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister or in the Ministry may not be moved during the period of eighteen months commencing on the date of the appointment of the Prime Minister.” PNG also has a constructive provision that applies for most, but not all, of the term (145.2.a: “A motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister or the Ministry… moved during the first four years of the life of Parliament shall not be allowed unless it nominates the next Prime Minister”.)

6 thoughts on “Proposals for Israeli political reform–again

  1. In Belgium, the Chamber can dissolve itself after the government has fallen (constitution, art. 46 (3) “En outre, le Roi peut, en cas de démission du Gouvernement fédéral, dissoudre la Chambre des représentants après avoir reçu son assentiment exprimé à la majorité absolue de ses membres.”)

    In practice, all early dissolution since 1978 have been triggered by a declaration stating which articles of the constitution should be revised, the first step in the constitution amendment procedure. That is de facto a self-dissolution.

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    • That’s interesting–especially the part about declarations on the constitution. I take it you are saying they do not actually go on and amend in most cases, right? It’s just a way to trigger an election?

      As for the point in your first paragraph, having a majority vote to dissolve after a government has fallen seems like a reasonable provision. But having one as an alternative path to bringing down a government–especially when the other path is a constructive vote as in Israel–seems like a flaw that it might be wise to correct.

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      • It’s not just a way to trigger an early election. In most cases, the next legislature does amend the constitution. That’s why there also will be such a declaration before a regular election. The list of amendable articles in the declaration is usually much longer than what’s actually amended afterwards.
        Because of those frequent amendments to the constitution, the exception (election triggered in order to amend the constitution) has become the usual procedure.

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        • I assume that in Belgium, once an amendment has passed the first stage, the chamber can just delay making the declaration until it is convenient to have an election?

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  2. There are very few cases of parliamentarism where there is no easy path to dissolution if the government has fallen. I think May’s premiership (and the initial part of Boris Johnson’s) showed how this can also lead to some pretty messy and deadlock-esque situations; where the government does not have a positive majority in its favour, nor is there a majority for any alternative government, it’s probably not a good thing for the opposition to be able to block an early election.

    BTW, the Knesset technically DOES dissolve. It just happens after the election, once the new Knesset is ready to constitute itself. The old Knesset dissolves on the day the new Knesset is constituted.

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    • Thanks for picking that nit. I did say “never” although the whole of the sentence rather obviously is referring to the period leading up to an election.

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