The focus on scandals and poor behavior of MKs instead of on the legislature’s work and importance is a danger to democracy, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein warned Tuesday.
Speaking at a special meeting in honor of the Knesset’s 67th birthday, which takes place next week, and the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the Knesset building, Edelstein discussed the need for MKs to be a better example for the public – a theme expounded upon in subsequent speeches by President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog.
“On this day, we must remember that the Knesset is important...
and most of its members are dedicated public representatives who are faithful to their mission,” Edelstein said. “On this celebratory day, I turn to the Israeli public and implore them... Do not let disturbing, outrageous or ‘yellow’ incidents mar the entire picture.”
Edelstein called for the public to critically follow what happens in the Knesset and not give up on it.
The Knesset Speaker said he is aware of the Knesset’s low public approval ratings, and that he is concerned that it is a longterm trend.
“Knessets are elected and dispersed, MKs come and go, but Israeli democracy is in danger,” he stated.
Edelstein said that instead of “provocations and verbal altercations” there should be “incisive discourse through mutual respect, listening and understanding that the public’s eyes are on this House and this hall.”
Netanyahu gave a rousing defense of Israeli democracy, citing its historic roots in the Great Assembly of rabbis from which the Knesset (which means “assembly”) takes its name, and the number of its members (120).
The prime minister pointed out that Israel, as a democracy, is a rarity in the Middle East.
“We have a Knesset, a government and a judiciary; we have laws and respect for the law.
These are the pillars of Israeli democracy,” he said.
Netanyahu spoke of the Arab Spring, which began with protests calling for freedom and rights, and in most cases, ended with the opposite, with rising Islamic forces.
The 20th century was a time when democracy spread around the world, Netanyahu recounted, but there are many threats to democracy in the 21st century.
“This is what happens when radical Islam rears its head.
Israel is on the front lines of the battle, a stronghold of the democratic world in the eye of the storm,” he said. “We must defend the foundations of democracy, but in order to do so, we must block threats from outside.”
As for the Knesset specifically, Netanyahu cited exemplary speeches from the first three Knessets, adding “we have what to improve.”
The prime minister praised MKs for working hard, representing the people well and wanting to help people.
However, he called for “an appropriate and respectful parliamentary discourse without defamation and personal insults. The strength of an argument does not improve through cheap rhetoric; the opposite is true.”
Still, Netanyahu said that there are arguments in all democracies, and that is not a bad thing.
“The meaning of democracy is not a lack of conflict, but the ability to settle conflicts peacefully,” he stated.
Rivlin called the laws passed by the Knesset the continuation of the Mishna and the Talmud, symbolizing the revival of Jewish sovereignty in Israel, which Jewish people dreamed of throughout history.
President Rivlin mentioned that four years ago, as Knesset Speaker, he called for the legislature to pass a constitution for Israel, but that he does not think it would be possible today.
“A constitution means outlining the delicate lines of national agreement, and we must recognize that we, Israeli society, and the Knesset, as the only and most authentic representative of the sovereign [the people], simply are not ready for that yet,” he stated.
Rivlin said that he has met people from different parts of Israeli society as president, and has found that all of them – haredi, Arab, settler, secular – feel like they are a threatened minority.
“This tension doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from a deep change that is redesigning Israeli society from one in which there was a majority and minorities to one where there is no clear minority or majority.
These groups learn in different schools, live in different cities, don’t know one another, don’t meet... This increases fear, alienation and distrust,” he explained.
MKs have a job as public leaders to avoid a “zero-sum game dynamic” between parts of Israeli society, Rivlin said, whether it comes to the character of Shabbat, military service or the way the budget is used.
As such, Rivlin called for each group in society to be able to maintain its identity, for them to show mutual responsibility, for there to be fairness and equality and a vision of a joint Israel.
Herzog called the Knesset “a faithful representation of the unique human mosaic of Israel, with all its beauty and complexity.”
The opposition leader called to block “attempts to limit the Knesset’s actions, to weaken it and its ability to work, even if it is uncomfortable for someone and even if the Knesset’s work delays the enactment of government plans.”
“Whoever thinks that preserving power by weakening the Knesset and canceling its authority is undermining the basic principles on which Israel was built, as a Jewish and democratic state,” he emphasized. “Whoever thinks staying in power by weakening the safeguards, the media, regulators, judiciary and law enforcement is undermining the basis of democracy on which the State of Israel was built.”
Herzog also pointed out that situations change in democracies and said hopefully: “Those who are ruling today will find themselves in the opposition, and those in the opposition can find themselves ruling.
One is the alternative for the other and one cannot exist without the other.”