10/24/17 A New Knesset Session-Democracy and Pickles

The Israeli parliament has always been known as a place of raucous debate. Even so, the opening of the Winter Session of the Israel’s Knesset this past Monday will certainly go down as one of the most colorful and possibly important days in its history. The commencement of the Winter Session took place against the backdrop of multiple investigations into the allegations of criminal behavior by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These inquiries have been going on for over a year. However, by all indications, the police are nearly ready to complete their investigation in at least two of the cases and submit their recommendations — which are expected to call for indicting the Prime Minister.

The impending culmination of the probe into Netanyahu has resulted in an attempt by the coalition whip, and close confidant of the Prime Minister, to promote a law that would prohibit the investigation of a sitting Prime Minister. The only other country with a similar law is France — although France has term limits that Israel does not. The whip, David Biton, has demanded the Knesset immediately pass the legislation to thwart scrutiny of sitting Prime Ministers, claiming the law would not be applied retroactively. Yet, few believe the final wording of the law would reflect that fact.

Yesterday, before the opening of the session the State’s Attorney General and Chief Prosecutor, both appointed by Netanyahu, came out strongly against the bill, stating that a democracy does not pass such laws. The Attorney General went further saying that “if the bill passed the Office of Prime Minister would become a sanctuary for criminals”. It was reported this morning by Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper that Biton is being investigated by the police for criminal behavior.

In addition to the law limiting the ability to investigate a sitting Prime Minister, a number of other controversial laws are expected to be introduced in the Knesset session, including a bill to limit the power of the Supreme Court.

The Knesset session began, as is tradition, with a speech by the country’s President, whose role is largely ceremonial. In a break from established practice, President Reuven ‘Ruvi’ Rivlin attacked the current government and accused them of endangering democracy. He warned of a coup taking place; a coup by the current government who are trying to impose the notion “the rule of the majority, is the only rule”. Rivlin went on to attack the attempts made by ministers and members of the government coalition to vilify the courts, the police, the press, and even the Israel Defense Forces. The President decried the current situation, which he described saying — the person who governs, claims he is the victim. Rivlin, who has been a lifelong member of the Likud was immediately attacked for his remarks by his party. Minister of Culture Miri Regev declared, “He was no longer one of us”.

Following Rivlin’s searing address, Netanyahu gave his speech, one that had been prepared in advance, and as such, was not directed squarely at the remarks made by the President. Netanyahu repeated the long list of accomplishments for which he claims credit, primarily, in terms of facilitating the continued vigorous growth of Israel’s strong tech-based economy. Then, the Prime Minister decided to use the metaphor of “sour pickles” to describe the views and actions of his opponents. In his divisive proclamations, during which many members of the opposition were either thrown out for heckling or walked out, Netanyahu attacked both MK Yitzhak “Bougie” Herzog, head of the opposition and MK Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, for criticizing his speech to the US Congress in opposition to the Iran agreement. Netanyahu claimed his pair of political rivals alleged that he no longer understood America and that the speech would accomplish nothing. Netanyahu then rhetorically and sarcastically opined —“The speech of President Trump is nothing? Trump’s statement that ‘this is the worse agreement in history’ and deciding not to certify (the Iran agreement) is nothing?”.

Netanyahu then went on to say that all the accusations against him baseless, i.e., just the actions and statements of sour individuals. Herzog, the head of the opposition, responded asserting Netanyahu was only interested in his own political survival and that every action the Prime Minister takes is aimed at maintaining his seat and his control. In addition, Herzog also castigated Netanyahu for destroying relations between the government of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora.

One could say, this was just another day in the history of the Israeli parliament. However, long-time observers agree that the rhetoric and emotions on display at this opening Knesset session were unprecedented, and only a prelude to what can be expected, if and when the Police issue a recommendation to indict the Prime Minister. Netanyahu is not popular either inside his party or with the public-at-large. Nevertheless, both groups seem unable to imagine a time without “Bibi” at the helm. Thus, despite the extraordinary level of rhetoric for and against Netanyahu, those who usually try to forecast Israel’s internal political future have stopped predicting. The only thing everyone is sure of is that the political turmoil will continue to get worse.