The excitement in the Knesset was palpable Monday, ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first-ever Prime Minister's Questions Hour, and it didn't disappoint. The prime minister provided all the theatricality of his UN speeches, minus the props, since they're not allowed in the plenum.
Question Hour, while a longstanding practice in the UK's House of Commons nicknamed PMQs, is new to the Knesset. Each year, the opposition has the right to invite 10 ministers to answer questions they did not see in advance. One of those times, it can be the prime minister. So, rather than weekly PMQs like in the UK, the Knesset has annual PMQs and regular MQs. Monday was Netanyahu's first-ever time in the hot seat, or the hot podium, if you will.
Netanyahu was clearly ready for a showdown. He entered a Likud faction meeting with more gusto than he had shown in a long time, a big smile on his face, pumping party activists' hands and posing for photos with them.
Monday's plenum meeting got off to an inauspicious start, with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein delaying it for 10 minutes because no minister bothered to show up. Much of the Knesset continued not to bother to show up for the subsequent hour-and-a-half, as opposition parties presented their no-confidence motions, until the end, when ahead of Question Hour, the benches suddenly filled with lawmakers from all parties.
Netanyahu took the stand, clearly ready for a fight, but the MKs kept the previous couple of hours' sleepiness going, at least at first, with questions about extra benefits for Ashkelon, which was hit hard in Operation Protective Edge, and recognition of Beduin villages in the Negev. Serious questions that got fairly straightforward answers.
Then, MK Yael Cohen-Paran (Zionist Union) dropped a bomb, in the form of a rumor that is the brainchild of an Israel-obsessed anti-Semitic conspiracy theory blogger in America. When information about the preliminary probe of corruption allegations against Netanyahu is sparse, some people apparently stop being picky about their sources.
"It was written that an allegation is being checked that your son, Yair Netanyahu, used a passport with a fake name that the Mossad gave him to open a bank account in Panama to which hundreds of thousands of dollars were funneled," Cohen-Paran asked. "I want to ask you, did your son Yair Netanyahu get a falsified passport, and in which situations can a citizen get a passport with a fake name? In addition, how will this influence your work?" If anyone thought Netanyahu was concerned about the pre-investigation, his behavior seemed to indicate otherwise, though one could also reasonably interpret his Cheshire Cat grin and blasé attitude as overcompensation.
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"There's no passport, no Panama, no bank account, nothing. There's no smoke, no fire. There's hot air - a lot of hot air," Netanyahu said. "Spoiler alert" - yes, the prime minster really said that on the Knesset stage - "nothing will come of this, because there is nothing." He told the opposition to stop preparing for his political demise: "Don't hurry to have suits made. Stop the tailors." The theme of Netanyahu's confidence in his political longevity came up again and again, thanks to the opposition asking him about term limits.
MK Hilik Bar (Zionist Union) mentioned a video clip from a 1990s talk show that resurfaced recently, in which Netanyahu said he supports a two-term limit for prime ministers.
Unphased, Netanyahu - who is now on his fourth term, third consecutive one - said he made those comments when prime ministers were elected directly, but that it would not make sense in a purely parliamentary system.
"But maybe you should try harder to get elected," he said to the opposition.
Zionist Union faction chairwoman Merav Michaeli pointed out that Netanyahu didn't mention the system of government when he called for term limits.
"The public asked me to come back, and they asked again and again. The public decides that I'm standing here, and you're there sitting, and by my estimate, that's not going to change," the prime minister quipped.
The Question Hour - really two hours - wasn't all fun and games. Netanyahu addressed issues ranging from religion and state, like the lack of Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount and the rabbinical courts' refusal to accept conversions done by American Modern Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, to economics, lamenting that Israel does poorly on ease of doing business rankings because of overregulation, to campaign finance, supporting an anti-SuperPAC bill and slamming anti-Netanyahu get out the vote campaign V15, and more.
Of course, the peace process came up repeatedly, and there were no surprises there. Netanyahu scolded MK Essawi Frej (Meretz) for calling the settlement Amona "land theft," but said he does not support legislation to allow houses the High Court called to demolish to continue standing. MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) called for a settlement freeze, and Netanyahu pointed out that when he tried it in 2009, for 10 months, the Palestinians still didn't come to the table.
"I shouldn't have to remind you, you already know that," he snarked.
Netanyahu also doesn't have a peace plan, as many could have guessed, and admitted as much in response to Bar.
Why should Israel present a list of concessions it's willing to make to the Palestinians, when they haven't offered any of their own, Netanyahu wondered.
As for international relations, Netanyahu returned to his oft-repeated lines about Israel expanding ties with Asia, Africa and South America, with his usual emphasis on Asia.
"I want to praise the Foreign Minister and his staff," he said.
Reminder: Netanyahu is the Foreign Minister.
The bottom line, Netanyahu said in his summation, is that life is pretty good in Israel. "If things are so bad, why is Israel ranked the 11th-happiest country in the world?" he asked.
And with that day's over two hours of political theater coming to an end, Netanyahu said he had so much fun, he'd like to do it again.
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