The Knesset Circus

It has been a long time since there was an uproar in the Knesset on the scale of the one that took place last Wednesday, during a seemingly ordinary debate about the recent report on poverty. What caused the Speaker of the Knesset to take the highly unusual step of interrupting the sitting? What was the subject of the verbal clash between Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu and Yitzchok Herzog, the head of the opposition? How could the explosion have been foreseen and what was the connection to President Rivlin’s visit to Washington and New York?

The conflict between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition reached record heights last Wednesday. It was no longer in the realm of a mere disagreement. Instead, it became a verbal clash that was practically saturated with mutual hatred. In truth, we might have guessed in advance that a seemingly simple discussion would lead to an explosion that is most unbefitting of the Knesset. For one thing, there were the vicious denunciations of President Reuven Rivlin, which were deemed “incitement” by the political left. Then there were the actions of the organization calling itself Breaking the Silence, which seem to have crossed some significant red lines. And then there was also the tension between the government and the coalition, as well as the anxiety of the Knesset speaker over the public standing of the Knesset, which has reached an all-time low. Let us explain these things one by one.

First, President Rivlin recently returned from a visit to America, one that was not particularly well-received here in Israel. The Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony Rivlin attended at the White House, where a Reform clergywoman recited the brachos and lit the menorah, was criticized not only by the chareidi community, but by others as well. Then, on his trip to New York, Rivlin spoke at an event attended by members of Breaking the Silence, which angered the majority of the Israeli public. In recent days, Rivlin has been subject to scathing criticism. For some reason, certain elements in this country have accused his detractors of “incitement.”

What is “Breaking the Silence”? It is an organization that claims to be working to preserve the “purity of arms” in the IDF – to ensure that the army uses its weapons solely for legitimate purposes. Its members actually monitor the activities of the country’s soldiers, and it reports any perceived violations of the law or unethical acts to the authorities. Sometimes, the organization also appeals to the courts. All of this might be acceptable, but the problem is that the group has been working to besmirch Israel’s name throughout the world. Many consider that to be outside the bounds of acceptability, yet that is exactly what Breaking the Silence has been doing, even at the event that Rivlin attended. The problem facing the organization’s critics is that many of its activists themselves have served in the army, and some of them even hold high ranks. Breaking the Silence has also been roundly condemned, and its critics, too, have been accused of “incitement” – a magic word of sorts in this country.

Another topic is the tension between Netanyahu and Herzog, or between the coalition and the opposition. There have been many hints in the Knesset that Herzog would be very interested in joining the government. He is tired of sitting on the benches of the opposition and accomplishing nothing, while Netanyahu would allow him to assume the position of foreign minister. At the same time, not all of his political allies agree, since they will not receive positions of authority. Recently, there has been a marked increase in tension between the two. Relations between the coalition and the opposition have also deteriorated in recent times. Things in the Knesset are no longer the way they used to be.

And then there is the matter of the Knesset’s public image. Recent surveys have shown that the public’s respect for the Knesset has been steadily decreasing. This may be for any of several reasons: the behavior of the members of the Knesset, the recent increase in their monthly salaries, or the fact that the Knesset plenum has been empty more often than it is occupied. Regardless of the reason, the public’s attitude has perturbed Yuli Edelstein, the Knesset speaker, so much that he recently earmarked about two million shekels for the production of several television programs about the Knesset, which will be broadcast as paid programming. The allocation is relatively small, but it was enough for the public to find fault with Edelstein himself for the decision.

All of this served as the backdrop for the events of this past week. Last Wednesday, the Knesset held an unusual type of debate known as a “Forty Signature Discussion.” When 40 members of the Knesset submit written requests for a discussion in the Knesset, a debate is held at which the prime minister is required to be present throughout the discussion and to hear all of the speakers. Of course, he is allowed to leave the plenum for a minute or two, or to have a cup of coffee in the lounge behind the plenum, but not more than that. These debates take place approximately once every six months. Last Wednesday, the debate was titled, “When Will the War on Poverty Begin?” and was held in response to the report on poverty published last week, which established that the poverty rate in Israel, especially among children, has grown. The report was filled with hard, painful facts and figures. As always, the members of the opposition denounced the government, while the coalition reminded the representatives of Yesh Atid that they themselves were members of the previous government, that Yair Lapid was the Minister of Finance at the time, and that the poverty currently plaguing the country has its origins in his policies.

• • • • •

When the debate ended, the prime minister was required to conclude it by responding from the podium to all 15 speakers, including Yoav Ben-Tzur of the Shas party and Meir Porush of Agudas Yisroel. Yuli Edelstein, the Speaker of the Knesset, had entered the plenum at the beginning of the debate, taking over from his deputy, Meir Cohen. Edelstein knew that he would have to preside personally over a debate that was liable to be so highly charged. He invited the prime minister to speak, presciently warning the Knesset in advance that anyone who disturbed his speech would be asked to leave.

Netanyahu began, “Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and thank you, members of the Knesset. I have heard about this subject, and I have listened to all of your words. Of course, I plan to address the main topic that you have raised, the subject of poverty, as well as the other subjects that you have mentioned, and even some issues that you haven’t brought up.”

The prime minister cited statistics to prove that he was working to reduce the country’s poverty rates. “The first thing we have done, as I described to you, is to increase the government child allowances. The second step was raising the minimum wage to 1,000 shekels. We are steadily making additions; that is the second thing, and it is also a step in the right direction. The third step, which is no less important, is assisting a specific population that suffers from poverty: the elderly.”

Netanyahu spoke about the natural gas agreement, which he signed the following day, and then went on to discuss the political situation. Many members of the Knesset interrupted his speech, and Edelstein, true to his word, ordered some of them removed from the plenum.

“Many countries in the world,” Netanyahu said, “including the largest ones, are tightening their relations with Israel and their collaboration with us. I am not speaking only about the United States, which is our oldest and most important ally and will always remain that. On that note, some people have spoken about a rift between America and Israel, but there is no such rift. We are currently in discussions with President Obama and the American government regarding a ten-year agreement that will bolster the security of Israel. But in addition to the United States, there are other powers that are interested in deepening their relationship with us. They are doing this for two reasons: because they want to fight extremism, and because they want to partner with progress.” With those words, Netanyahu concluded his address.

Many Knesset members shouted at the prime minister at that point. Some of them were incensed by the fact that he hadn’t said a word to condemn the “incitement” against President Rivlin. In keeping with the rules of the Knesset, meanwhile, Edelstein invited Yitzchok Herzog to deliver his own address. The Knesset speaker then repeated his warning to the legislators not to interrupt the proceedings.

Herzog made his way to the podium and proceeded to deliver one of his fiercest speeches ever. But instead of beginning his address with the issue of the rampant poverty in the country, he chose to begin with a different subject. “Mr. Prime Minister,” he declared, “I am addressing you now, and I am looking directly into your eyes. Mr. Prime Minister, on behalf of a large portion of the Israeli public, I demand that you take the podium and declare that Reuven Rivlin is your president, that Reuven Rivlin is a patriotic Israeli, and that anyone who participates in the incitement against him will not be forgiven. I demand that you protect our president! Not far from here, in Kikar Tzion, a mob gathered over 20 years ago and screamed, ‘We will banish Rabin with blood and fire!’ At the time, you pretended not to see or hear, and the mob brandished signs with slogans such as ‘Rabin is a traitor,’ or with images of Rabin in a keffiyeh – and those too were ignored. Today, we are hearing the same thing, the sounds of a mob screaming, ‘Ruvi Rivlin is not my president!’ Today, there are masses of people holding banners with pictures of Rivlin on the colors of the Palestinian Authority, and there are mobs calling for him to be attacked physically – and this time, Mr. Prime Minister, you will not be able to claim that you did not see it or hear about it. This time, you must take action. You must take a stand and be decisive. This is the moment of truth.”

Herzog went on to castigate Netanyahu on the subject of poverty as well: “During your term, the poverty in this country has only grown. Israel is a strong country, but only a small fraction of its population is affluent and huge numbers of people are poor. This is what you are selling. This is your socioeconomic worldview: poverty for the masses. Tell me: Are you not interested in the old men who need to rummage through garbage bins and live in the freezing cold? What about the starving children? Are they of no concern to you?”

• • • • •

At a certain point, Herzog’s rambling speech came to an end. (Ironically, Herzog himself was the Minister of Welfare in the past.) Ordinarily, this would be the time when the Knesset votes, but the prime minister requested permission to take the podium again in order to respond to Herzog. It was an unusual move, and some feel that it was in violation of Knesset regulations. Nevertheless, Edelstein agreed to his request.

In his second turn at the podium, Netanyahu first presented a series of statistics that attested to the fact that poverty has decreased. It was clear, though, that this wasn’t the reason he had asked to speak again. Indeed, his next move was to address the subject that had disturbed him.

“You can continue to say that we are not acting on these issues, but we are acting,” he said. “I believe that one of the most powerful things we are able to do in our disputes is to try to present facts. Facts are important. We may have different philosophies, and that is also legitimate. Criticism and frank dialogue are the mainstays of democracy. Substantive criticism, as harsh as it may be, is appropriate, but violent tirades and incitement are not. From my personal experience, I can tell you that every leader is criticized. I, as the prime minister, am criticized, as are the president and the members of the Knesset. I am opposed to any form of incitement or violent pronouncements made against the president, or against any other leader or public figure in the State of Israel. At the same time, I will continue to protect the right of every one of us to express an opinion. That is the way democracy works. But for you, Knesset member Herzog, I have a request: I would like you to come to this podium and openly condemn the organization known as Breaking the Silence, which slanders the soldiers of the IDF everywhere in the world and besmirches the good name of the army of the State of Israel.”

This seemed to be a major blow to Herzog. Netanyahu had accepted his challenge and had denounced the groups that have been attacking Rivlin. Now we would see if Herzog would condemn Breaking the Silence. The Likud members felt that Netanyahu had neatly trapped Herzog, and they applauded. This angered Edelstein. Applause is not accepted in the Knesset plenum, except on rare occasions, such as when a visiting head of state delivers an address from the Knesset podium. Turning to the Likud benches, Edelstein demanded, “What is going on?”

Meanwhile, Netanyahu concluded his remarks by noting that Breaking the Silence “curtails the rights of Israeli civilians and soldiers to defend the State of Israel. Please,” he said again to Herzog, “come to the podium.”

Edelstein now had no choice but to invite Herzog to respond, since the Knesset regulations state that the leader of the opposition has the right to respond after any speech delivered by the prime minister. Indeed, Herzog was eager to exercise that right.

“Mr. Prime Minister,” Herzog began, “I noticed that you have equated yourself with Abu Mazen, which is a very interesting comparison. Just as Abu Mazen does not issue condemnations, you do the same. You have not condemned the dreadful incitement against the number one citizen of the State of Israel—”

“He just said it!” MK Kish exclaimed in protest.

“—who was elected here in the Knesset,” Herzog finished his sentence, ignoring the interruption.

This time, the applause came from the benches of the Labor party. They felt that Herzog had given Netanyahu his just desserts. As far as Edelstein was concerned, though, this was too much. I looked at him. He was stunned and enraged. His face was red with fury, and his response was unprecedented.

“Members of the Knesset,” Edelstein announced, “I am interrupting this sitting for five minutes.” Without waiting for a response, Edelstein left his seat and retreated to his office, perhaps in order to recover from the disorder in the plenum. Meanwhile, pandemonium broke out in the Knesset.

Some of the lawmakers supported Edelstein’s exaggerated reaction, while others disagreed with it. Some felt that he had been one-sided in his response: He had merely rebuked the Likud members for applauding, but when the opposition did the same, he angrily stopped the sitting. At the same time, one could understand why he was much more infuriated when it happened the second time.

• • • • •

Five minutes passed and Edelstein returned. The members of the Knesset hurried to take their seats, since the only thing left to do was to vote. And in the Twentieth Knesset, as everyone knows, the coalition rests on a margin of a single vote.

Edelstein now spoke. “I am aware that my actions just now were very unusual,” he said, “but I want to tell you something – and I have even asked officials who are more senior than I about this. It has never happened in the Knesset plenum in the State of Israel that when people approve of something – whether it is a vote, the outcome of a vote, a speech, or simply an expression – they begin to applaud. I am prepared to overlook all sorts of things. There have been speeches that I have found particularly distasteful, and that have sometimes crossed red lines, yet I have remained quiet. Knesset members who have been here for two days sometimes stand up in the middle of the plenum and start telling me what to do, and I remain silent. But I will not allow this plenum, which belongs to all of us, to be turned into a circus.

“I would like to personally apologize to the head of the opposition,” Edelstein added, “for the fact that my nerves did not hold out for his entire speech. You are not at fault more than anyone else here, and if you would like to continue speaking, you certainly may do so.”

Herzog returned to the podium to conclude his address, but by that time, no one was interested in what he had to say. He protested the fact that the sitting had been interrupted when his own party had applauded, but not prior to that, when the Likud members were guilty of the same infraction. He also pointed out that Netanyahu shouldn’t have been permitted to deliver a second speech. He condemned the incitement against Rivlin once again, and then added a few oblique sentences about Breaking the Silence: “Somehow, you managed to connect this issue to Breaking the Silence, but I do not see the connection. Purity of arms is a supreme value, one that we were all taught to respect. Anyone who has served in the IDF understands the principle and all of its subtleties. No one disagrees with that. Our army is a moral army—”

Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Education, interrupted Herzog at this point and demanded, “Are you denouncing them or not?”

Herzog relied, “I have no doubt that Breaking the Silence, in certain situations, has crossed the bounds of acceptability. But it is also important for people who have fought on the front lines to be able to say what they have to say, to express themselves and to make their experiences clear in the right places.”

Herzog left the podium, and Yuli Edelstein called for a vote on the prime minister’s announcement. The electronic screen showed that 44 members of the Knesset had voted in favor, while 42 voted against. There were no abstentions, and the prime minister’s announcement was accepted.

This time, of course, no one applauded.