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Knesset Highlights: Fifteenth Knesset

(1999 - 2003)

Fifteen factions were elected to the 15th Knesset - the same number as were elected to the 11th and 12th Knessets. The major difference, however, was the number of seats won by the two largest factions in the previous Knessets. In the previous Knessets, the number of members that constituted the two largest factions was 85 and 79 respectively. In the 15th Knesset, that number declined to only 45. Two centrist parties received 6 seats each: Shinui and the Central Parties. By the end of the fifteenth Knesset's term, the Central Party, for all intents and purposes ceased to exist, while Shinui increased its power in the 16th Knesset to 15 seats.

As with all of its predecessors from the 11th Knesset on, the 15th Knesset reigned for less than four years - three years and eight months.

The 15th Knesset was the second since the establishment of the State during which two governments, headed by Prime Ministers from two different parties, held power. The first time this occurred was during the 11th Knesset, when Shimon Peres from the Labor Party and Yitzhak Shamir from the Likud Party held power in rotation within a National Unity Government.

During the term of office of the 15th Knesset two separate Prime Ministers were elected by direct personal vote (instead of being elected as head of a party list, which had previously been the case): Ehud Barak from the One Israel Party (an alliance of the Labor, Gesher and Meimad Parties) on May 17, 1999, and Ariel Sharon from the Likud on February 6, 2001. The coalition that each established was constituted from different factions. The major difference between the two was that under Barak, Meretz was One Israel's chief partner while under Sharon, Labor-Maimad was the Likud's chief partner. Immediately upon the formation of the Sharon government, the Knesset at the initiative of the Government, revoked the direct personal election of the Prime Minister. The old system of voting for one list was reinstated and took effect in time for the election of the 16th Knesset.

Since the Sharon Government was composed of 29 Ministers, an additional small table had to be placed in the in the middle of the old government table in the Knesset Hall in order to accommodate all of the government members.

MK Avraham Burg of the Labor Party was elected Chairperson of the 15th Knesset, despite his not being the nominee of Prime Minister Barak. He continued in this position even after Sharon was elected PM and even though he opposed Labor taking part in the National Unity Government. Burg initiated the establishment of "The Research and Information Center" in the Knesset in 2000 as well as "The Commissioner for Future Generations" in March of 2001, whose purpose is to evaluate the impact of current legislation on future generations.

Burg advocated the right of the Knesset to direct its own independent external relations. This policy became manifest when he invited the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and the Chairperson of the Palestinian Parliament Abu Ala to visit the Knesset in spite of the Foreign Ministry's objections.

At the beginning of the 15th Knesset there was optimism regarding the potential progress of the Peace Process. This, despite fierce disagreements concerning the concessions it appeared Barak was willing to make on the Palestinian front at Camp David, as well as on the Syrian front.

These disagreements were frequently expressed in Knesset debates. A year after the establishment of the Barak Government, the IDF unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon. This was also a subject of dispute between the various factions of the Knesset.

In September 2000, the Second Intifada broke out, destroying any hopes for a permanent peace in the near term. In October, riots broke out in the Israeli Arab sector, in the course of which 13 Israeli Arabs were killed. The Northern Border remained relatively quiet despite the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon. Corresponding to the outbreak of the Intifada, three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped from within Israel and murdered by the Hizballah, and an Israeli citizen was kidnapped while on an overseas visit.

As the Intifada continued, Palestinian terror acts against Israel increased, as did Palestinian terrorist suicide bombings.

On October 23, 2000, Revhavam Ze'evi, a Minister in the Israeli Government, was murdered at the Hyatt Hotel in Jerusalem by Palestinian terrorists. At the end of March 2002, Operation Defensive Shield was initiated. All these events were subject to extensive Knesset debate.

At the beginning of the 15th Knesset's term of office, the state of the Israeli economy appeared robust. The Intifada, however, negatively influenced the economy. The global economic crisis and the worldwide Hi-Tech bust also contributed to the deep recession that had beset the Israeli economy. The Knesset dealt extensively with Finance Ministry proposals to combat the economic crisis. Severe budget cuts for 2001 (approved only in March 2001) were the end result. There were also difficulties in passing the 2002 budget (approved only in February 2002). There was also massive opposition to Government proposals for a radical tax reform that included, among other things: A tax on capital gains, savings accounts and stock market investments as well as an inheritance tax. The Knesset voted down these proposals.

The Second Intifada increased the demand for foreign workers. Their number increased to 260,000 by the end of the 15th Knesset, two thirds of which were in Israel without work permits. Parallel to the increase in foreign workers there was also an increase in unemployment. The number of unemployed reached 200,000. The 15th Knesset created a specific committee to handle matters regarding foreign workers. It also dealt extensively with the unemployment problem as well with the growing social/economic gap. The Knesset was also witness to protests by members of the handicapped community.

A record number of private members' laws were proposed in the 15th Knesset - 4,236 in all. Of these, 239 were passed into law, in comparison to 162 governmental proposals and 39 committee proposals.

There was a realization that many of the private members' laws required a large financial expenditure that was not covered in the budget. Consequently, on July 15, 2002, an important amendment to the Basic Law: The State Economy was adopted: Legislative proposals and reservations whose adoption entails budgetary expenditure. This amendment made it mandatory that private member legislative proposals requiring five million NIS or more per year to implement and that were not supported by the Government receive the support of at least 50 Members of Knesset to pass.

One of the most important pieces of legislation that was passed by the 15th Knesset had to do with sorting out the terms of military service of ultra-orthodox Yeshiva students according to the proposals of the Tal Committee. Other important pieces of legislation dealt in the following areas: The employment of workers by labor subcontractors, the amending the social security law that doubled the birth allowance from the fourth child on and increased the child allowance from the fifth child on, and a law that delineated the activities of the internal intelligence service - the “Shabak.”

While the 14th Knesset did not institute even one Parliamentary Inquiry Committee, the 15th Knesset instituted nine such committees. Among the most important of these committees were those that dealt in the slave trade of women, the social gap, and road accidents. Six committees published reports.

On July 31, 2000, the 15th Knesset elected Moshe Katzav to be the eighth President of the State of Israel.

Sources: The Knesset