It is called Question Hour, and this time it was the prime minister’s turn. Prime Minister Netanyahu entered the Knesset plenum last Wednesday at exactly 2:00 in the afternoon, and he left two hours later. He didn’t even appear exhausted at the end of the session, which turned out to be quite fascinating. At times, it was embarrassing as well. Not all of the members of the Knesset conducted themselves with the dignity expected of a public official. Some of them spoke in a manner that was unacceptably crass. Still, it was interesting, and even amazing at times. I attended the session in order to report to you on the most noteworthy exchanges. Some of the questions were received by the prime minister in advance; others were spontaneous. Of course, the latter were more difficult for him to answer. With that introduction, let us begin.
“Did You Accept Illegal Gifts?”
At the beginning of the question-and-answer session, the Knesset speaker reminded the participants of the rules. “Members of the Knesset,” he began, “I request silence. I am not happy about the large number of people there, and I ask you all to remain quiet. We are about to have Question Hour with the prime minister. For those of you who may have forgotten, we have an opportunity during each session to ask the prime minister or a different minister of the government, who are to be chosen by the opposition, to come to the Knesset and respond to inquiries. Every questioner will be given two minutes, and every response may take up to three minutes. Three quarters of the questions will be asked by the opposition and one quarter will come from the coalition. I will decide who may present questions. Since the prime minister also serves as the foreign minister and the communications minister,” he added, “this session will be one hour and 20 minutes long.”
The Knesset speaker stressed that the questions should be limited to “matters concerning his office. The prime minister is not here to answer questions on any other subject, and this is certainly not meant to be a platform for making any sort of political statements. The guidelines are clear, and I am therefore announcing in advance that any questions on irrelevant subjects will be disqualified, in keeping with paragraph 47 of the rules.”
The session began with a question from Yaakov Peri of the Yesh Atid party. His question was entirely appropriate and reasonable, concerning the reason that no one had been appointed to head the National Security Council. Netanyahu’s response, too, was appropriate and on target. But the second questioner, Dov Khenin of the United Arab List, gave us an indication of what we could expect during the remainder of Question Hour.
“Mr. Prime Minister,” Khenin said, “the attorney general has prohibited you to be involved in the business dealings of Shaul Elovitch, due to the friendship between the two of you. He determined that there is a conflict of interest that is forbidden by law. As a result of the attorney general’s decision, we discussed this subject here in the Knesset plenum, and we transferred the relevant powers to a different minister in the government in order to prevent a situation in which you would have a conflict of interest. It has now been revealed that you have been receiving favors for many years from billionaire Arnon Milchan. You have been quoted as saying that these were gifts from a close friend. My question is: Were they actually prohibited favors from a wealthy businessman, or were they gifts from a close friend, in which case we should understand that you have hid your connections with him?”
Yuli Edelstein, the Knesset speaker, demanded, “What type of answer do you expect to that question?”
“He is designating himself not only a questioner, but an interrogator and a judge as well,” interjected Miri Regev.
Edelstein called on the next speaker to present his question and informed Netanyahu that he was not required to respond to Khenin. The prime minister, though, opted to speak. “I will tell you something,” he said. “The issue of conflict of interest is now being discussed in the Supreme Court. These decisions are in the purview of the attorney general. I see that you want to ask me about all sorts of things, and I will answer you within the limits that apply.”
Edelstein then interrupted, “I would like to offer you the opportunity to respond to anything you choose, but only at the end of this session. We will first deal with all the questions pertaining to the government and the ministries that are under your oversight. If you would like to deal with other subjects after those questions have been addressed, I will allow it. But as I said, we will not allow Question Hour with any minister of the government to be used for any purpose other than what it was intended for. MK Revital Swid, you may ask your question.”
Revital Swid, like Dov Khenin before her, asked a question pertaining to the police investigation, and Netanyahu did not hold back from responding. “I would like to tell you something, as well as the member of the Knesset who spoke before you,” he said. “I see that you want me to address the subject of the scandals that are constantly cropping up, these issues that come and go all the time. Well, I will tell you this: At the end of this session, I will speak about these issues. Yes, I will! Is that all right?”
Building for Chareidim
The next questioner, Yoav Ben-Tzur of the Shas party, raised a question that was indeed appropriate for the context. “Mr. Prime Minister,” he said, “a statement has been issued, in your name and in the name of the Minister of Defense, that 2,500 new housing units have been approved for Yehuda and the Shomron. This is a welcome development, but you are certainly aware of the housing shortage facing the chareidi community. This crisis is no secret; we need tens of thousands of apartments. Therefore, I would like to ask: Why is it that you didn’t approve hundreds or thousands of apartments in Beitar and Kiryat Sefer? The entire chareidi community is crying out for this to be rectified immediately. Thank you.”
Netanyahu replied, “MK Ben-Tzur, we are now emerging from a very difficult period of eight years. When I arrived in Washington for my first visit, President Obama said to me – and this has since been repeated publicly – not to build even one brick. I am referring to the area beyond the 1967 borders; I am referring to Har Choma, to Gilo, and to Ramot. I am not even speaking about Beitar Illit and other such communities. That was his demand: not one brick anywhere. But during those eight years, there were bricks laid and buildings built, in Beitar and in other communities as well.
“We are now emerging from that era. We have begun one wave of building now, and there will be other waves as well. We are certainly aware of the housing crisis facing the chareidi community, and we plan to care for the needs of all the citizens of Israel, without exception.” It was a lengthy answer, but it offered no substantive information.
The next questioner, an Arab, was outraged by the destruction of illegal buildings in the Arab sector. He was followed by Ayelet Nachmias-Verbin of the Zionist Camp, who resumed interrogation-style questioning. “Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. Speaker,” she said, “thank you very much. I would like to read aloud a text that can be applied to the prime minister: ‘This is a prime minister who is up to his neck in investigations. He does not have an ethical or public mandate to make such fateful decisions for the State of Israel, since there is a genuine concern that he will make decisions based on what is best for his political survival, and not on the basis of the nation’s interests.’ I would like to ask you, sir, what is your opinion of this text. And to remove any doubt, I will add that there is no one in this building who is happy that you are being investigated. Thank you very much.”
Nachmias-Verbin’s ploy was particularly embarrassing to Netanyahu, since the text that she read aloud was a comment made by Netanyahu himself, concerning his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
Netanyahu replied, “Your concern for me is heartwarming, but I make decisions based on what I think is important for the State of Israel and for Israeli security. That is all.”
Tamar Zandberg of the Meretz party was the next to jump into the fray, voicing support for her colleague. “MK Nachmias-Verbin just quoted you, Mr. Prime Minister,” she said. “In 2008, you said that a prime minister who is embroiled in investigations does not have a public or ethical mandate to make important decisions, since there is a real concern that he will decide based on his own personal interests and not what is good for the country. Therefore, I am asking you, Mr. Prime Minister, if you are indicted, do you plan to resign?”
“We can move on to the next question,” Edelstein announced, forestalling any further discussion.
The proceedings moved on, but you can imagine – or perhaps you can’t imagine – the screams that pierced the air in the Knesset whenever the prime minister did not respond to these attacks.
“Did You Speak to the Gingy?”
The next questioner, Elazar Stern, asked Netanyahu about the chief of staff of the IDF, whose term was extended this past week for another year, and about the commissioner of the police force, who doesn’t yet know whether his own term will be extended. Next was Zouheir Bahloul, an Arab member of the Zionist Camp party – who worked as a sports announcer until he was elected – who spoke politely but remained on the same subject.
“I would like to ask you in principle,” he said, “if you are prepared to make the statement, here in the Knesset of the State of Israel, in the most absolute terms, that you will remove yourself from office the moment you are indicted.”
Netanyahu remarked, “I see that the members of the Knesset insist on asking the same questions over and over in order to score points with the public.”
The next question dealt with the Bedouin community in the State of Israel. It was followed by a question dealing with the Yemenite children. Then Omer Bar-Lev (a member of the Zionist Camp and the son of former Chief of Staff Chaim Bar-Lev, who later served as a government minister) had a turn to go on the offensive. “My question is this,” he said. “In the recorded conversations that were released, you promised Nuni Mozes, the publisher of Yediot Acharonot, that you would speak with ‘the gingy’ [a reference to Sheldon Adelson, the owner of Yisroel Hayom] within a week or two. Did you actually do that?”
“Thank you, MK Omer Bar-Lev,” Edelstein interjected. “We are now moving on to the next question.”
“Let me answer him,” Netanyahu said.
“No, no, no,” Edelstein insisted. “Mr. Prime Minister, you also may not violate the rules.”
“You said that I am not obligated to reply, but you didn’t say I wasn’t allowed,” Netanyahu retorted. Turning to Bar-Lev, he said, “MK Bar-Lev, you certainly do not really mean to imply that I am the first person to meet with publishers, newspaper editors, and other people who have influence in the media, or even people who have friends, even wealthy friends. I would like to tell you something, Mr. Speaker: The members of this Knesset are so busy throwing stones that they don’t even notice that they are living in glass houses.”
Some of the questions that followed were to the point, including one that led Netanyahu into a debate with Arab MK Ahmed Tibi over the conduct of the police force toward the Arab sector of the country, as well as a question pertaining to security. Betzalel Smotrich then asked what changes to expect in the Trump era. To that, Netanyahu replied, “We must act with responsibility and determination; those qualities were necessary not only for the period that has just ended, but also for the times that lie before us. Constant diplomatic skill and insight are required. We cannot simply do as we see fit; we must pursue what we wish to accomplish with wisdom, rather than taking actions that will achieve the opposite results. We have built before and we are building now, and I will discuss the matter of construction, along with other topics, with President Trump. He has said this himself, and I am saying the same thing here today.”
The next questioner mocked the prime minister once again, and Netanyahu did not deign to reply. He said merely, “I hear the defiance and mockery in your tone, and I will find a way to respond to you.” The questions then continued on a range of topics: the recent rash of arsons, the socioeconomic gaps in Israeli society, the previous government, and the issue of abducted soldiers.
A Carnival of Hypocrisy
There were a few more questions, and then the session drew to a close. I see no need to quote the remaining questions, but I will share Netanyahu’s closing comments with you. In truth, Netanyahu was heckled at length after every sentence, but I will omit those interjections. Instead, I will present his remarks as a single monologue, ignoring the interruptions.
Netanyahu spoke primarily about the allegations that he offered to reduce the publication volume of Yisroel Hayom in exchange for favorable coverage in Yediot Acharonot, the question of whether he dissolved the previous government because of the law against Yisroel Hayom, and the illegal gifts that he is alleged to have received.
“When there are efforts made to undermine the prime minister in many areas,” Netanyahu said, “and one of those efforts is to silence any media outlets that do not repeat the party line, to stifle the range of opinions that are vital to democracy, which I believe in – when I see that there are efforts to undermine me, in that way and in other ways, then that leads me to dissolve the government. In the course of the elections, my family and I – yes, my wife and children as well – were subjected to daily dreadful attacks from Yediot Acharonot and, I must add, every hour from Ynet. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, there was no one who fought against the Yisroel Hayom law more than I did. I did it for the sake of freedom of expression, diversity, and pluralism.
“I must say something to the leaders who are sitting here, as well as those who are not here. No one else fought this law, but I am under investigation. It sounds like a bad joke. Before you investigate me, you should investigate all 43 members of the Knesset who voted for this law and received the most flattering coverage possible from Nuni Mozes, rather than the repeated attacks that I received. I also want to make something clear to you, and it is something very important. In my opinion, there is no need to investigate anyone. This is an issue involving the complex relationship between the media and the political realm, which exists not only in America and not only in other democratic states, but in Israel as well. I don’t think that any investigation is called for. But in light of the unending clamor of criticism from the media and from all of you, and this carnival of hypocrisy, I would expect all of you in the media to demand to know who proposed that law, who submitted it, and why. You should want to know who voted for it and who abstained, and what sort of coverage those people received from Yediot Acharonot and Ynet. But that, of course, is something that neither you nor the media are demanding to know. Hypocrisy is running wild, and the goal is clear: The purpose is to destroy me and the Likud government that I am leading, and in your eyes, that end justifies any means.
“That very same hypocrisy is what we are seeing in what has come to be known as the gifts affair. The law permits receiving gifts from friends, but the law has been twisted: There is one law for Netanyahu and a different law for everyone else. Now, look what they are saying; it is fantastic. They are saying, ‘The law doesn’t permit receiving gifts from friends, or if it does permit it, then these people aren’t your friends.’ Arnon Milchan and I have been close friends for 20 years. Our wives are close friends, and our families are close.”
At that point, the screams in the plenum were deafening. The prime minister could barely get out a single complete sentence. The Knesset speaker ordered members of the Knesset to leave the plenum one after another. Netanyahu tried to conclude his remarks: “Mr. Speaker, anyone with eyes in his head can see that this is an unprecedented campaign of harassment, persecution, and hypocrisy. Its goal is to bring about a change of regime by exerting media pressure on the attorney general to issue an indictment at any cost. And people are saying that – politicians, people in the media, and political pundits. The law enforcement agencies are being intimidated. The message is clear: ‘If you don’t indict Netanyahu, then you are not qualified to enforce the law. Bring us Netanyahu’s head, and if you don’t, you don’t deserve to be the attorney general.’ And who are the ones who are exerting all this pressure? The bearers of the double standards, the very same champions of the ‘rule of law’ who protected Ariel Sharon after the Disengagement from Gaza and who fabricated stories of money being sent to Panama. They are the ones who invented the ‘Bibi Tours’ scandal and deceived the public with stories of crimes that never took place. And so we have Case 1000, Case 2000, Case 3000, Case 4000, and so forth. There is no end to the numbers and the cases. That is their method: constant harassment, constant persecution, constant preying with accusations that are entirely false. There is no end to the lies of the media and the politicians. They hope that in the end, all that pressure will achieve something. After all the cases are closed, after all the investigations are over, they hope that something will have to be given to them, that something will be done to appease them, that there will be an indictment for some reason, and it doesn’t even matter what. The main thing is that someone will try to appease them. That is their plan. And I say again: There was never any crime, and a prime minister will not be unseated through investigations.”
Then Netanyahu delivered his closing blow. “My friends on the left,” he declared, “I have news for you. I will continue to lead the State of Israel for many more years, for the sake of the citizens of Israel, the country, and the Jewish nation. You should all begin to get used to that. Thank you very much.”