Israel's Knesset Can Teach Congress About How To Get Things Done

Israeli KnessetWhat has ten parties, four religions, two languages, and 120 opinions, and yet still passed close to 600 new laws in its most recent term?

The Israeli Knesset, which could teach the U.S. Congress a thing or two about overcoming differences and Getting Things Done. The Knesset is the only parliamentary democracy in the Middle East, and its members include ultra-orthodox Jews, secular Jews, Arabs, Christians, and Druze.

In a country strewn with tribalism, in which the religious and secular live in an increasingly uneasy coexistence — not to mention the split between Jews and Arabs — somehow the Knesset remains a radically more effective legislative body than our Congress.

Of course, when you compare anything to Congress, you're setting a very low bar. So how exactly does a deliberative body that has actually broken out into fistfights on the floor of its chamber get such consistently high marks for actually getting meaningful legislation passed on a regular basis?

“You have to remember that we are a young country,” says Yotam Yakir, Knesset spokesperson and the head of Media and Public Relations.

“We are not quite 70 years old, so we are still young as a society. And we also have a certain improvisational spirit here.”

So how exactly does the Knesset avoid the stalemate and divisiveness of our Congress? First, the Knesset is a truly representative body in which its members are elected without any gerrymandering. It's said that American legislators pick their voters, instead of the voters picking their legislators.

By contrast, in Israel, you don't vote for an individual person; you vote for a party. And it doesn't matter where you live — from Eilat in the South to the Golan in the North, every voter gets the same choice of parties.

So there is a certain amount of fairness baked into the system that the American approach to choosing representatives lacks. Next is a level of openness unmatched not only in the Middle East but, for that matter, in the United States. In committee rooms, ordinary citizens can take seats directly behind Members of Knesset, or MKs, as bills are debated, and can even enter the conversation if they have something useful to add.

All debates are broadcast live over Israeli television and are available on the Knesset's own app, so you've got true government in the sunshine, no “if you want to see what's in the bill, you have to pass it.”

The next thing that sets the Knesset apart is its level of collegiality among members whose views are, to put it mildly, in extreme opposition to one another. 

In the two Knesset dining rooms — one meat, and one dairy, in keeping with the rules of Kashrut — you'll see ultra-orthodox male MKs breaking bread with their female Arab counterparts. You'll see conservatives and liberals having coffee together.

In the U.S. Congress, this is how things used to be, when representatives from different affiliations and from different regions would share an apartment in DC to save money.

Today, there is virtually no crossing of party lines in Congress when it comes to friendship and fraternization, making it extremely difficult to get things done.

In the Knesset, by contrast, collegiality is the order of the day. Israeli politicians know that progress comes from finding common ground, not drawing lines. Another key reason for the Knesset's success at lawmaking comes from the never-ending existential threat supplied by Israel's neighbors.

While the Jewish state has made peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, they still face the threat of terrorism and war with Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Lebanon, and most dangerously, Iran. The constant cycle of peace and war has certainly taken its psychological toll on Israel, but in the nation's parliament, the unspoken bond of the need to pull together for survival often transcends short-term political debate.

Another reason for the success of the Knesset versus the U.S. Congress: its smaller size.

The Knesset, founded in 1949, a year after the state of Israel was born, has 120 members, a number derived from ancient Israel's Third Century C.E. governing body, “The Men of the Great Assembly.” – When you have just 120 members representing a nation of 9 million, it's impossible for the members not to know each other well and find human connections that can overcome political differences. There has been talk of expanding the number of Knesset members to, say, 140 or 150, simply to relieve the strain on them.

Each MK is expected to belong to four or five different committees and somehow make enough time to give vast amounts of proposed legislation their due.

Finally, there is a level of accountability in the Knesset that the American system of government is not likely to impose on itself. At various entrances to the Knesset, MKs and visitors alike can see an attendance board, on which head shots of all 120 MKs appear. MKs in the building have their head shots displayed in color. If they miss more than a certain number of days a week, their pay is docked.

Since they are not allowed any outside forms of employment, this hits them right in the pocketbook. It's not likely that Congress will impose such limitations on themselves anytime soon.

Of course, if any congresspeople reading these ideas don't cotton to them, they can always take the advice of comedian Jackie Mason: “You know why American has a deficit?” he asks audiences. “It's because all the Senators are on salary. “Put them on commission. The deficit will disappear.”

Michael Levin, a 12-time bestselling author, runs, a provider of ghostwriting and publishing services.

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