The seventeenth Knesset officiated for nearly three years, during which the 31st Government, headed by Ehud Olmert, was in office.
For the first time since the establishment of the Knesset, the largest number of seats were won by a newly formed party running for elections for the first time – Kadima. However, Kadima’s senior members were veteran Knesset members from other parties, mainly from Labor and Likud.
The 31st Government was the first government to appoint an Arab minister. Minister Raleb Majadele presided more than a year over the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport. However, another Arab Knesset member, chairman of Balad party Azmi Bishara, resigned from the Knesset and fled the country due to an investigation opened against him.
Seventeen women were elected to the 17th Knesset – and for the first time in the history of the Knesset, a woman was elected as Speaker. In addition to the changes made to the appearance of the Knesset building, the Speaker created a new position at the Knesset – a Director General. The appointment was recommended in 2000 by a public commission relating to the work of Knesset members. The Director General was made responsible for the administrative operation of the Knesset, while the Knesset Secretary General remained responsible for its parliamentary procedures.
The resignation of the eighth President of the State of Israel Moshe Katsav, following a decision that he will be put to trial, brought the Knesset Speaker to serve as Acting President until Shimon Peres was elected to the position.
Two military operations took place during the 17th Knesset’s tenure: The Second Lebanese War broke out against Hezbollah organization, following the abduction of two IDF soldiers by the northern border; and Operation Cast Lead against the Hamas authority in Gaza, aimed at stopping firing of rockets on Sderot and the settlements surrounding the Gaza Strip. Both operations brought about much damage in lives and property to the home front in Israel, caused by rockets from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Most of the factions in the Knesset, excluding the Arab factions, supported the opening of both operations, but in both operations there was also criticism against the intensity of the Israeli retaliation and its lack of proportion; there was also criticism on the premature ending of both operations, brought about by international pressure before the expected outcomes were achieved.
Fierce criticism was leveled at the government and military’s conduct during the Second Lebanese War, as well as at the lack of preparedness of the home front and the inadequate care given to it during the war itself. This brought about the establishment of the Winograd Commission, which submitted its final report in January 2008. The Knesset debated extensively on the war and the work done by the Commission. Criticism against Operation Cast Lead included the fact that the heads of state did not proclaim the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit as one of its goals.
Despite public and political claims that the Prime Minister resign over the unsuccessful functioning during the war, the steps that were taken were the resignation of Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the replacement of IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. Ehud Olmert announced his resignation only in July 2008, as criminal investigations were being held against him. His resignation included the resignation of all government ministers, as is the norm. Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni was elected as chairperson of Kadima in September 2008, but she failed to form a new government, and on October 27th, the President announced the need for elections within 90 days.
During the 17th Knesset’s tenure, political negotiations continued to be held between Prime Minister Olmert and Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. No progress was made in these negotiations due to the weakening of the Palestinian leadership of Fatah and the takeover of Hamas over the Gaza Strip. The Likud and right-wing parties criticized the Prime Minister on reports regarding alleged concessions. An international conference was held in Annapolis in Maryland during November 2007 aimed at renewing the peace process and establishing a path for negotiations on an Israeli – Palestinian agreement. This attempt was not productive. Indirect contacts with Syria were held with the mediation of Turkey, but these were stopped following the harsh reaction of the Turkish Prime Minister to Operation Cast Lead. These issues, as well as the increasing and urgent concern for Iran’s buildup of nuclear capabilities, were often the basis of Knesset debates.
The 17th Knesset passed noteworthy legislation regarding women’s rights, while also appointing a man, Gideon Sa’ar, as chairman of the Committee on the Status of Women. The Knesset approved many bills relating to the environment and education, a law concerning the work of lobbyists at the Knesset, two laws concerning organ transplants, and two laws guaranteeing an income for Holocaust survivors.
The Constitution, Law and Justice Committee continued its work towards the formation of an agreed formula for a constitution and for actual changes in the Israeli governing system, but little progress was made. It also discussed extensively a bill allowing to hold referendums on peace agreements that include concessions over territories, but its discussion was interrupted by the elections. The house Committee continued its work to approve new rules of ethics for Knesset Members, as suggested by the Public Committee for Rules of Ethics headed by Prof. Yitzhak Zamir. Members of the public committee refused to attend further sittings after the House Committee dismissed its recommendation of the appointment of an ethics advisor to the Knesset, and the work on its remaining recommendations was stopped.
Following the appointment of Prof. Daniel Friedmann as Minister of Justice, the Knesset debated extensively over the consequences of his proposed reforms in the judicial system and the Supreme Court. These mostly concerned changes in the ratio of power between the legislative and judicial branches.
The State Control Committee had decided during the Knesset’s tenure to establish several national inquiry commissions – on aid to Holocaust survivors, for examining of the water shortage crisis, and for the examination of the handling of state authorities with the citizens evacuated from Gush Katif during the disengagement from the Gaza Strip (2005). The committee only used its power to establish a national inquiry commission once before, in 1985, for examining the bank stock crisis.
The liaison between the Knesset and the government was discussed during this period by a “round table” initiated by Knesset Secretary General Eyal Yinon and Government Secretary Ovad Yehezkel. Unrelated to these discussions, amendments were made to the Knesset Law and the Knesset Rules of Procedure, compelling each minister to answer parliamentary questions directly and to respond to motions for the agenda on matters concerning his office, and prevent him from sending the minister responsible for liaison with the Knesset to answer in his place. The amendments also demand that a minister will supply a periodic report to the Knesset on the activity of his ministry and its budgetary expenses. Government ministries and other national bodies are also obliged to cooperate with the Research and Information Center of the Knesset.
The social and economic gaps that began during the tenure of the 16th Knesset remained, and the international financial crisis emerged in early 2008 and progressed throughout the year. These worsened the economic status of the citizens and brought about an increase in the rate of unemployment. Naturally, the Knesset dealt with these subjects frequently.
Approximately one year after the Seventeenth Knesset took office, the new Kedma wing was completed. All Knesset Committees were moved to its facilities and spacious rooms, thus completing the transfer to the new wing.
Sources: The Knesset