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The filibuster wasn’t a waste of time – the bill that motivated it is

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Strom Thurmond

FORMER US SENATOR Strom Thurmond (left) is applauded at a ceremony in his honor in 1997.. (photo credit: LUC NOVOVITCH/REUTERS)

Most of Israel’s last parliamentary week was consumed by a filibuster delivered by opposition MKs in the course of the second and third readings of the “Recommendations Law.” This bill seeks to disallow the publication by the Israel Police of recommendations after it completes investigating public figures suspected of having committed serious crimes, before the attorney general decides whether or not to bring charges against them.

Filibusters are a legitimate obstructionist tool used in many democracies, primarily by oppositions. A filibuster involves the stretching out of parliamentary debates, primarily over legislation, to many hours and even days, by groups of MPs or individual MPs. The speeches delivered within the framework of the filibuster might be directly connected to the subject at hand, might have nothing or very little to do with it and might even involve the reading out of the telephone directory.

Filibusters may involve the submission of hundreds and even thousands of reservations to the bill being debated – some serious but the majority nonsensical, simply designed to waste time on endless votes.

The purpose of most filibusters is to try to obstruct legislation, or to express disapproval of it, even if the chances of preventing its approval are slim or nonexistent. Those performing these filibusters are interested in hitting the headlines for the purpose of making their point of view known, or as a sport – to break the record in terms of the longest individual speech delivered, or the longest collective filibuster ever performed.

The world record for a collective filibuster was set in the beginning of 2016 in South Korea. The filibuster lasted for 193 hours and was performed over the approval of a controversial law connected with the war on terrorism. The longest individual filibuster in the US Senate – where filibusters are a common practice – was by Senator Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina), who in 1957 spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes on the Civil Rights Act of that year, which he opposed.

However, filibusters may also be used by the government (in parliamentary democracies) to buy time until the government manages to muster a majority toward a vote. In the UK the government may use filibusters to defeat a private members’ bills by simply wasting the time allotted to debate them.

But to return to what transpired in the Knesset last week, after the 43-hour filibuster and an additional 10 hours of voting and other procedures – at the end of which the  “Recommendations Law” passed by a vote of 59 to 54 – the new coalition chairman, MK David Amsalem, slammed the opposition for allegedly stopping all the serious work in the plenum and in the committees, and for wasting Knesset funds due to the need to keep the House open and all its services running for 53 hours straight.

He also accused the opposition of hypocrisy in its opposition to the bill, which he claimed would prevent crass injustice for tens of thousands of persons who have been investigated by the police but most of whom were never charged, irrespective of the recommendation of the police to the prosecuting authorities.

In his attack Amsalem (a first-term MK) not only proved his ignorance regarding the history of filibusters in the Knesset, but also twisted the facts to the point of diverging from the truth.

Filibustering was introduced to the Knesset by MK Yohanan Bader from the opposition Herut Movement (the predecessor of the Likud), who spoke through the night on March 27, 1957, on the Income Tax Ordinance. The longest personal filibuster in the Knesset was delivered by MK Michael Eitan (Likud) on December 29, 1992, and lasted for over 10 hours (it was cut short by the Knesset doctor). The nastiest collective filibuster was carried out by a group of Likud MKs less than two months after prime minister Yithzak Rabin’s murder in 1995, over the Economic Arrangements Law for 1996.

On that occasion thousands of nastily worded amendments were submitted, which made the 500 or so amendments submitted last week by today’s opposition seem like innocent New Year’s greetings. One of the participants in that infamous filibuster was MK Dan Tichon, who was to become Knesset speaker after the 1996 elections, when Benjamin Netanyahu served his first term as prime minister.

But even on that occasion the right of the opposition to hold a filibuster was upheld (though some amendments were introduced to the Knesset rules of procedure on the issue). Nothing was said at the time about waste of time and resources, even though the Knesset’s legal advisers at the time expressed great consternation about the time and effort they had to invest in dealing with the nonsensical reservations.

What was worse about Amsalem’s attack on the opposition was his own hypocrisy regarding the Recommendations Law and the coalition’s conduct. This bill was initiated by Amsalem to ease the pressure on Netanyahu with regard to the ongoing police investigations against him. It should also be noted that at issue is the publication by the police of conclusions regarding these investigations; for the past 15 years the police have not published recommendations.

The attack of the opposition and various legal authorities on the personal nature of Amsalem’s bill resulted in Netanyahu himself asking that it should not apply to him and other investigations currently taking place (which also leaves out the investigations of MK David Bitan).

What is not clear is why, after Amsalem complied with Netanyahu’s request, the enactment of the bill remained so urgent. In fact, had the coalition let matters calm down a bit, perhaps a serious bill could have been drafted, in cooperation with the opposition, that would have really helped the tens of thousands of innocent persons under investigation, whose names are sullied by the premature publication of suspicions against them, and would have dealt, once and for all, with the problem of leaks from police investigations.
The current law, as approved, applies to only several hundred public figures – political, economic and criminal – many more of whom are ultimately prosecuted than is true of the tens of thousands of ordinary citizens of whom Amsalem (and Netanyahu) spoke. A senior Likud member said that the only reason the bill was pushed through at this stage, before anyone forgot what its original purpose had been, was so Amsalem could save face.

The fact remains that the Likud has wasted Knesset time trying to enact various laws designed to assist Netanyahu in his current predicament (for example, the proposed “French Law” concerning the investigation of heads of state), or keeping the coalition together (for example the “Supermarkets Law,” which will be coming up for second and third readings soon), most of which have been warded off by the opposition and legal authorities.

The fight against the wave of problematic bills, including the use of filibusters, is not a waste of time and resources – it is these coalition bills that are the problem.

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