“I would like to ask the members of the Knesset and the audience to respectfully rise before the speaker of the Knesset and the president of the state.”
The voice of the Knesset secretary was clearly audible, and the members of the Knesset and ministers of the cabinet, along with the dignitaries in the VIP gallery, complied with her instructions. The assemblage stood respectfully until the two arriving officials, Yuli Edelstein and Ruvi Rivlin, arrived at their seats at the front of the plenum. At that moment, everything seemed calm and respectable, as was fitting for the festive opening sitting of the winter session of the Knesset. Still, it was clear that before long, the sparks would begin to fly.
The VIP gallery held many guests, including Chief Justice Miriam Naor of the Supreme Court and State Comptroller Yosef Shapira, along with the family members of the victims murdered in the recent terror attacks on the Har Habayis, in Chalamish, and in Har Adar, all of whom were guests of the speaker of the Knesset. Word had already been received from the president’s residence that he planned to speak about the ongoing power struggle between the executive and legislative branches of the government (the Knesset and the cabinet) and the judicial branch (the Supreme Court, previously under the aegis of Naor and now under her successor, Esther Chayut). The broad hints emanating from the president’s residence did not create much excitement in the Knesset or among the Israeli people. In the State of Israel, unlike in America, the president is nothing but a figurehead, who is often considered insignificant even on a symbolic level. The president has no real authority and his words carry no legal weight. And unless the president is a public figure of special importance, such as Shimon Peres, his words have little emotional impact as well.
The members of the Knesset still remember President Rivlin from his previous position as the Knesset speaker. That was a highly politicized position, and everything he said in that capacity had to be phrased with the appropriate caution. This time, the political left was pleased by his speech, while the right was outraged. One of the government ministers went so far as to declare that “Rivlin is spitting into the well from which he drank” – in other words, he was showing ingratitude to the Likud party. She was actually wrong about that, since Netanyahu had made every effort to see to it that Rivlin would lose the presidential election to his opponent, MK Meir Sheetrit. The truth, therefore, is that Ruvi Rivlin was elected despite Netanyahu, not because of him. I remember sitting next to him while the votes were counted in the Knesset, and I could hear his heart pounding at the time. In fact, I called the Knesset physician to join us, since I feared that he might have a heart attack regardless of the outcome of the election – even if he won, and certainly if he lost.
- • • • •
At last week’s opening session, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein was the first to address the plenum. He noted that the Knesset has lost much of its stature in the public’s view, and he implored the members of the Knesset to do everything in their power to restore its dignity. He also spoke about the power struggle between the three branches of the government, and he implored the parties to the conflict to come to their senses soon. He concluded his address by wishing his listeners a successful winter.
The next speaker, President Rivlin, gave a fairly predictable address about the ongoing conflict between the country’s politicians and its judges, decrying what he felt was an effort to weaken the guardians of the law. As I said, his words did not have much of an impact.
Then it was Netanyahu’s turn.
The prime minister arrived in a fighting mood and proceeded to take on everyone who stood in his way. He lashed out at his political enemies and took some verbal jabs at the media. In general, he was at his best, even if he came across as a bit conceited. He enjoyed every moment of his speech, allowing the audience to heckle him and then haranguing them even more fiercely in return. Without question, this speech will go down in history among Netanyahu’s most famous addresses. It has already received a nickname: “the sour pickles speech.”
Officially, Netanyahu’s speech was meant to be the prime minister’s official statement regarding the activities of the government since the previous session of the Knesset and its plans for the upcoming session. The speech was followed by a debate, after which the Knesset was supposed to vote on whether or not to approve his statement. I will not keep you waiting for the results. The speech was approved by a large majority of 54 to 45.
At first, Netanyahu was able to speak without interruption, as he enumerated the accomplishments of the State of Israel since its inception. “Together with all the citizens of Israel,” he concluded, “I am proud of our magnificent accomplishments over the 70 years of our independence. That is an anniversary that we will celebrate in just a few months. We are turning Israel into a rising world power. This is the golden age of our state. Israel is in an unprecedented period of political and economic growth. Our security and power are greater than ever. Our national foundations are solid. These are not things that we can take for granted.”
With that, Netanyahu went on to discuss the country’s troubles, both within and without. “We have strength,” he said, “but we are not being complacent. We are certainly not ignoring any dangers. There are many great challenges ahead of us, both from within the state and from without, the greatest of which is the need to repel Iran’s efforts to achieve a military foothold in Syria. We are constantly working to protect our borders, and when the need exists, we will work outside our borders as well. We are also determined to continue preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. This is the same Iran that continues calling every day – and working every day – for our destruction. If not for our ongoing, determined efforts over the years, Iran would have obtained nuclear weapons long ago. I applaud President Trump for his very important decision not to approve the nuclear agreement with Iran. As I said in the United Nations, that agreement must be either improved or abolished. In any event, we are working constantly to guarantee that we will have the ability to protect ourselves. Any enemy who threatens us with destruction must know that he is placing himself in danger of a fatal attack. At the same time, we extend our hand in peace to all our neighbors.”
Netanyahu then returned to the subject of Israel’s accomplishments under his leadership. He spoke about his meetings with politicians from all over the world, the construction of new apartment buildings and roads, the growth of Israel’s economy, the decrease in unemployment, the aid to the periphery, the growth in tourism, and other achievements. In contrast to the utopian vision that he painted, the prime minister mocked the “industry of dejection,” in his words, that receives the encouragement of the media.
“I would like to tell you,” Netanyahu began, “in contrast to the heckling that I have heard here, that the citizens of Israel know that this is a good place to live. Israel is a beloved homeland and a warm home. Without a drop of cynicism, I can say that it is a wonderful country. Israelis travel abroad in large numbers. Over three million Israelis traveled out of the country for the summer or the holidays. That is an incredible number. But when they come back, what do they say? We hear this time after time: They say, ‘There is no other land like ours. There is nothing like Israel.’ They see the innovation and the construction. They see the towers in Dimona and Kiryat Gat, in Olga and in Ohr Akiva. We are turning Israel into a world power in computers, hi-tech, and intelligence. We are developing our military strength and resources, as well as our economic and technological power, and we are integrating these things in order to develop increased diplomatic leverage. Even those who spoke about ‘political isolation’ and a ‘diplomatic tsunami’ a year or two ago understand today that Israel is enjoying major diplomatic growth.”
Yoel Hasson of the Zionist Camp interjected, “This is the same speech. It’s the same speech every year.”
“There is something new,” Netanyahu disagreed. “This year, there is something new. The industry of dejection has developed a new branch – it has now begun producing sour pickles. There was a time when they raised esrogim. Today, they have moved on to pickles.” The Hebrew word for pickles, “chamutzim,” also denotes people who are sour or grouchy, and Netanyahu harped on the word for that reason.
“What about the investigations?” demanded Tamar Zandberg of the Meretz party.
“The industry of dejection has branched out into the production of sour pickles,” Netanyahu repeated. “Today, everyone says, ‘There is a feeling of sourness among the public,’ or ‘Netanyahu is walking around with a sour face.’ They can’t decide if I am sour, conceited, or both.”
The prime minister turned to face the members of the opposition, who were seated to his right, on the left-hand side of the plenum. He mockingly addressed Yitzchok Herzog, the leader of the opposition, and Yair Lapid, the chairman of Yesh Atid, both of whom were seated beside him. “My good friend, the leader of the opposition, Yitzchok Herzog, you said, ‘This speech [Netanyahu’s address to Congress to express his opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran] is a terrible wound in the relations between Israel and the United States.’ MK Lapid, you said these words: ‘Your perception of America is outdated and irrelevant, and causes damage to the State of Israel. You do not understand America.’ That is what you said. And veteran pundits said it this way, and I quote: ‘It is uncertain if this speech will have any effect.’”
“They were right!” asserted Omer Bar-Lev of the Zionist Camp.
“What do you mean?” Netanyahu demanded. “President Trump’s decisions are meaningless? It was the decision of President Trump to take something that he called ‘the worst deal in the history of America’ and to refuse to accept it. Does that mean nothing? You know very well what happened. On the contrary, this says a good deal about the diplomatic understanding and the degree of foresight of the leaders of the new sour pickle industry.”
Netanyahu then set his sights on a word that has been in vogue lately: “incitement.” “There is one word that is particularly popular in their lexicon – ‘incitement,’” he said. “Responding to fake news in the media is called incitement. Complaining about illegal leaks driven by an agenda is also called incitement. But is that really an attack on the rule of law or on democracy?”
- • • • •
If Netanyahu’s goal was to infuriate the opposition, then he was undoubtedly successful. He certainly had much more confidence than he had ever displayed in the past. It is possible that he also wanted to demonstrate that he is able to remain completely serene despite the many investigations surrounding him, and despite the media’s nonstop persecution. A series of shouts of protest rang out from the benches of the opposition, and Netanyahu shot back, “This is how they work! When one side expresses its views, that is called freedom of expression. But when the other side expresses its views, it is incitement. This is their method. I have a lot of respect for the institutions of democracy, but I have no respect for hypocrisy.”
This evoked another series of outraged interjections. Netanyahu stood and leaned toward the hecklers, as if to be able to hear their shouts. He made no effort to conceal his enjoyment of the scene. When the Knesset speaker managed to restore some quiet to the plenum, Netanyahu continued, “There is something else that these sour pickles do. When we are in power, they always, always, describe the country as being frozen, treading water, or simply making no progress. As far as they are concerned, as long as Jewish settlements are not being evacuated, that means that we are not moving forward. All of our accomplishments have no meaning.”
Chilik Bar of the Zionist Camp shouted, “You are a hypocrite! Who has dismantled Jewish settlements until now? Only the right has done that! You uprooted Jews from their homes. You created the Disengagement. You are the ones who left Gaza. We didn’t do it. That is hypocrisy!”
Netanyahu replied, “I am very happy that the concern for the settlements has filtered through to the opposition. Very good. That is progress.”
“Thank you,” said Bar. “Did I say something incorrect?”
Yuli Edelstein ordered Bar expelled from the plenum. “Does someone else want me to have him leave?” he asked aloud. “The speaker right now is the prime minister, not you.”
“I want to correct something I said,” Netanyahu continued. “When I said that they always say things that are negative, it wasn’t true. Sometimes the sour pickles manage to give a quarter of a compliment. They say things like ‘He knows how to speak, but look at what he is doing!’ All the diplomatic achievements, the economic growth, the reduction in unemployment and poverty, the increase in security, the advancements in the cyber industry, the blocking of infiltrators, the transportation revolution, and the blossoming of the Negev and Galil – all of this is completely meaningless in their eyes. And why? Because if you didn’t dismantle a settlement, you have done nothing. It’s as simple as that… When these sour pickles talk among themselves, you can hear things such as ‘Isn’t it true that the situation here is terrible? Isn’t it true that everything is falling apart?’ By the way,” Netanyahu added mockingly, “did you remember to buy tickets for your weekend in London, or are you flying to Berlin? You grumble – and you travel abroad. You complain – and you shop. It is hard for you, very hard, all of you embittered people. I understand you.”
Mickey Rosenthal of the Zionist Camp spoke up. “No. What is hard for us is the stench of the investigations against our prime minister….”
- • • • •
The prime minister ignored most of the jeers and interruptions, especially when the investigations were mentioned. He is experienced enough and intelligent enough to know when to enter into an argument and when to avoid one. He simply continued speaking about his chosen theme: the “sour pickles” who continue to grumble and complain about his government. And the truth is that he has a point. Israelis love to complain, even when there are improvements.
“You are always bitter, always on the offensive, and always complaining,” Netanyahu charged. “And to my great chagrin, you are always cursing me as well. When you had no alternative, you recycled the submarine story as the basis for your complaints, but you have already realized that that scandal is sinking into the depths. All right, you say, there are no submarines to hold against him, so what is left? Cigars! But you know that in another case, the police decided not even to open an investigation into someone who received a pen collection worth 1.3 billion shekels.”
This was a reference to the previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who had an affinity for collecting expensive pens.
“And if it isn’t cigars, then it is portions of food. And if not portions of food, then the Yisroel Hayom law,” Netanyahu continued, referring to two other issues that were investigated. One was the allegation that prepared food had been ordered to the Netanyahu residence and the purchases had been recorded in a dishonest fashion, so that the family could be reimbursed by the government. The other was the subject of his conversations with the publisher of Yediot Acharonot, in which the publisher promised more favorable coverage for the prime minister in exchange for the closing of Yisroel Hayom. “But you certainly know the truth in these cases as well,” Netanyahu went on. “You also know about the public’s reaction to the dozens of members of the Knesset who advanced and voted in favor of that horrific law, a law that would close down a newspaper in Israel. So where will salvation come from? Will it come from the protests of the leftists in Petach Tikvah? They are trying to intimidate the law enforcement services into pressing charges at any cost. Otherwise, they will be labeled corrupt or collaborators. And this – this is what is known as democracy and the rule of law!”
Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid) interjected, “You are the prime minister. Show some respect.”
Netanyahu ignored him. “Deep in your hearts, you sour people, you know that we will win any democratic elections, because we represent things that are highly valued by very many people in the nation. And until then, the ministers, the committee chairmen, and the members of the Knesset are all doing excellent work together. From this place, we will continue doing wonderful things for the citizens of Israel. We will lower taxes based on a plan that the finance minister and I will finish formulating very soon. This will make conditions easier for the citizens for Israel, for entrepreneurs and business owners – especially for new or small businesses. We will create a plan for support for the disabled at the unprecedented sum of 4.2 billion shekels. I met four disabled people on the way here, and they said to me, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, we know that there is a protest going on outside, but we have come to say thank you. We have come to thank you for the agreement. We stand behind it.’ We will also pass the Nationality Law, which will guarantee the Jewish character of the state as it is described in our declaration of independence, while still preserving individual equality for all the citizens of Israel.”
“You know that isn’t true!” shouted Jamal Zahalka of the Joint Arab List. “You are lying. It’s a lie!”
Netanyahu continued, “I want to see our Muslim citizens, our Christian citizens, our Druse citizens, and our Circassian citizens continue integrating into the success story that is called the State of Israel. This is not just talk. We have given our backing to this cause with the large sums that we have allocated for this purpose, more than any previous government has given for the cause.”
Netanyahu was pleased with himself, and he may indeed have been justified in that. He concluded his speech with a brief statement that was clearly designed to be the basis of the next day’s headlines: “With Hashem’s help, we will continue bringing our dreams to life – the dreams of many generations. Israel is soaring. We are celebrating seventy years of power, of pride, and of tremendous accomplishments. At least for that reason, let us all unite around the story of our rebirth, which has no parallel among the rest of the nations of the world.”
- • • • •
According to the regulations of the Knesset, whenever the prime minister speaks in the course of an important discussion, the leader of the opposition must be invited to speak after him. Yitzchok Herzog had prepared a virulent diatribe, but he was also intelligent enough to improvise a response to Netanyahu’s “sour pickle” accusations. Like the previous speakers, he began by greeting the dignitaries who sat in the VIP gallery, as well as the families of the murdered terror victims, and then he went on the offensive.
“Ostensibly, a country that is reaching its seventieth birthday should feel good about itself,” he said. “Our people should feel calm and secure here. But we, as the representatives of every class in society, have come here at the beginning of this month and at the beginning of the winter session with the entire nation filled with apprehension, frustration, and fear over the state of the country. Their concerns emanate first and foremost from the way the country is ruled, as a result of the campaign of fear and intimidation that you, the prime minister, have been drilling into it for years. Instead of giving your people confidence, you frighten them. Instead of giving them hope, you cause them to feel despair. Instead of letting the nation’s heart beat with love, unity, peace, and friendship, you tear it and divide it – both the people living in this country and those who live in the Diaspora. Yes, my friends, the ruler of this country has lost any sense of limits. Everything has become permissible; everything is now possible. All the lines have been crossed and all the dams have been burst – all for the purpose of preserving your rule. As they say, ‘The state is I, and I am above everything.’ You spoke about sour pickles,” Herzog went on, “and I would like to speak about people who sow venom.”
Herzog began enumerating what he considered the government’s sins, introducing each as if it were an “al cheit” from the viduy of Yom Kippur. “For the sin of destroying democracy,” he said. “For the sin of threatening and harassing those who uphold the law. For the sin of cultivating hatred among the people. And, of course, the sin of dividing the Jewish people.” That was an attack on the prime minister for offending the Reform movement.
With that, Yitzchok Herzog’s speech drew to a close. President Rivlin left the plenum, and everyone was asked to rise respectfully until he had departed. And with that, the Knesset’s winter session began.
In the brief amount of time that has elapsed since then, the Zionist Camp has already filed a motion of no confidence in the government. On what grounds? I will quote from their appeal to the Knesset speaker: “A government headed by a person who incites against the institutions of the government and against parts of Israel society must be replaced by a government that strives to unify the nation around a single shared vision.” The motion was debated this past Monday. Naturally, it was rejected by a majority vote.