The opposition welcomed UK Prime Minister David Cameron with decidedly undiplomatic behavior Wednesday, heckling and walking out on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to the plenum.
A day after Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein pleaded with opposition party leaders to behave themselves, his efforts turned out to be for naught. Though opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) said on Wednesday that the MKs who had been boycotting the plenum all week would be respectful while Cameron was there, not all of the lawmakers complied.
Edelstein warned Cameron that tensions were high at the plenum meeting’s opening: “Not every parliament deals with complex questions of war and peace, religion and state, majority rights versus defending minorities all in one week.
“There is a difference between a nation that has afternoon tea each day and a nation that eats its national food, felafel, standing up or walking while trying not to get its shirt dirty,” the speaker added. “Despite this, I hope that for your visit [MKs] will put their disagreements aside and respect all parts of this special meeting.”
The opposition stayed put for Edelstein’s speech – though most of Shas and all Arab MKs except Meretz’s Esawi Frej were absent – but did not give Netanyahu the same courtesy.
As the prime minister took the stand, United Torah Judaism lawmakers stood up by their seats.
“I think we get the point. Now are you going to sit or stand?” Edelstein asked them, and the haredi MKs immediately shuffled out of the room, while Frej screamed: “Bibi, give peace a chance!” Netanyahu started his speech with a dig: “I’m the prime minister, but I’ll still stay to hear the opposition leader.”
A reference to the Knesset as “the Jewish Knesset” brought murmurs from the opposition about it being “the Israeli Knesset.”
Then, a comment about the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel led Frej to shout: “So I guess I shouldn’t be here.”
Deputy Minister for Liaison with the Knesset Ofir Akunis yelled back: “So then leave. There’s a limit.”
“As the Knesset speaker said, we don’t have the level of decorum of the British Parliament, but we do have the democracy,” Netanyahu quipped to Cameron.
“We don’t have the humor,” Frej declared.
Eventually, Edelstein removed Frej from the plenum for interrupting too many times, and MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz) shouted in English: “There are no Arabs here now, it’s a pure Jewish Knesset.”
“You are seeing us in a very tumultuous week. We have great pain and sorrow over what we’re going through,” Herzog said of the opposition, opening a speech that was, essentially, the opening shot for his campaign for the premiership.
“People in this room are sweating, and it’s not because of the lack of air-conditioning; it’s because they see there’s an alternative to this government,” he said, to audible chuckles from the coalition and light applause from the opposition.
Herzog launched into a long list of lamentations about the coalition and the bills it passed this week, leading Akunis and MK Miri Regev (Likud Beytenu) to shout that he was being inappropriate.
Edelstein, who usually leads plenum meetings with a smile on his face, lost his cool, said “enough!” and called the lawmakers to order.
Next, Cameron took the stand with a display of British dry humor: “Thank you for that welcome. If I thought I would escape Prime Minister’s Questions and have a quiet Wednesday afternoon, clearly I came to the wrong place.”
Cameron informed the Knesset that he was warned things would be tense by UK Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould, who taught him the word “balagan,” disorder.
The British prime minister’s speech went off without a hitch, the only interruptions being occasional rounds of applause. The address ended with a standing ovation from the coalition and opposition.
MK Ahmed Tibi held his tongue during Cameron’s speech, unlike during Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s address, but he made a reference to his heckles from Harper’s visit in a tweet saying that Cameron should join the Likud.
Meanwhile, coalition MKs panned the opposition’s behavior.
“The opposition leader turned the Knesset plenum into a Labor central committee meeting,” Akunis lamented. “Herzog’s speech will be remembered as one of the most embarrassing addresses by an opposition leader in the history of Israel.”
MK Pnina Tamnu-Shata (Yesh Atid) said the opposition’s behavior “proves they are willing to embarrass Israel and the Knesset at any price. Their heckling during the speeches sounded like they were in a crowded market.
They could have caused a diplomatic incident.
“This won’t bring respect to Israeli society or democracy,” she added.