The great Jerusalem circus has opened for the winter season. The performers aren’t held in particularly high esteem – even President Reuven Rivlin said so when, ending his remarks, he told them: “I wish you all a stormy and courageous Knesset session that will increase the respect for this house....”
Now that’s a tall order. There will be storms galore, but courage? You’ll find more spine in a fluther of jellyfish than in the pack of clowns, jugglers and contortionists who inhabit much of our political scene. The only solace I draw from being a member of a profession that gets zero respect is the knowledge that members of Knesset usually get less.
The Knesset convened for its winter session only a week before the centennial of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which many view as having given Israel legs for the international legitimacy of its existence.
In reality, though, the vague, Kissingerian opening line (“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…”) was little more than a cheap pledge aimed at currying favor with the world’s oft-persecuted Jews who could – of course! – easily influence their respective governments to join Britain in the largely stalemated Great War against the Central Powers.
The declaration came two years after the McMahon Correspondence, in which Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, made – in return for help against the German-allied Ottomans on the Turkish front – similarly vague territorial promises to Hussein ibn Ali, the sharif of Mecca, who was having problems of his own with the neighboring House of Saud.
One might think that the underhandedness of the Balfour and McMahon deals (as well as the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement reached during the intervening year between Britain and France, both competing for hegemony in a postwar Middle East) should be a lesson to all regarding the pitfalls of complex multilateral accords. It certainly should for our lawmakers, although my feeling is that they’re actually quite fond of the duplicity part as they continue their wheeling and dealing, caring more about themselves, their cronies and their vested interests – and, yes, sometimes even about their own ideologies – than about us.
At the very least, our MKs could put up the same appearance of dignity and decency that the British did as they scattered promises like bread crumbs and then crushed them one by one. But no, many of our lawmakers look upon underhandedness as a virtue and even brag about it as they indulge in their wanton proclivity for raucous bluster and childish buffoonery.
Taking the podium as the winter session got under way, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed to his successes, including economic stability and diplomatic inroads. He meets, he said, “dozens of world leaders” who “admire us for our steady and determined war against terrorism, our technological innovations and our readiness to send lifesaving rescue teams around the world.”
No one can argue with that. But Netanyahu can’t remain statesmanlike for long when he’s in the same room as his political nemeses.
With his trademark conceit, he alluded to a series of corruption investigations long nipping at his heels and involving everything from cigars and champagne to multibillion-dollar German-built submarines. Normally, he’d prefer to forget these unpleasantries, but now he couldn’t help himself.
“Three hours ago, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the German government,” he told the plenum. “There are no submarines [to investigate anymore], so what’s left? Cigars?” But still he couldn’t resist, so he added an additional nemesis into the mix – the press – and called it, together with the political Left, an “industry of despair,” which, he said, had a “new branch – the hamutzim
In noun form, this is Hebrew for “pickles.” As a plural adjectival modifier, it means “sour.” Because many nouns and adjectives can be interchanged and still make grammatical sense in Hebrew, some news outlets went with “pickles” while others, with no small justification, felt he meant people who are “sour” and even “bitter.” Yet still others called it the way I saw it: “sourpusses,” and an entire branch of us to boot.
It was a jibe, of course, that was just begging for a meme. So later in the day, the prime minister posed at his desk for a Twitter photo, his arm draped casually over an industrial-size tin of... yes, pickles. His face was far from sour – it was one, large grin, a cross between that of a Cheshire cat and a teen basking in the warm aura of a prank gone exceptionally well.
When the head honcho does it, is it any wonder that there’s lots of raucous bluster and childish buffoonery in the Knesset? Yet Netanyahu’s adversaries were not left exactly speechless.
“Instead of giving your people security, you frighten them. Instead of giving them hope, you depress them…. You divide and rip them apart,” opposition leader Isaac Herzog retorted from the podium.
“You’ve turned anyone who thinks differently from you into an enemy,” Herzog went on. “You’ve turned the word ‘left’ into a synonym for enemy, and even coalition lawmakers whose conscience will not rest find themselves under unprecedented attacks simply because they dare express a moral position and are branded a fifth column.”
Yes, the Knesset is at it again, up and humming and at its sniping best. In fact, the only adult in the room on opening day was probably Rivlin.
“This is an important debate, this is an essential debate, this is a fruitful debate,” the president said, alluding to the give-and-take that would continue, no doubt, to make the plenum hum.
“But this is a debate in which we must be scrupulously careful about the integrity of our arguments and their implications,” he continued. “The significance of that integrity is to display respect for the decision- making processes; to display a commitment to formulating a coherent worldview and taking responsibility for its implications; to explain the principle and the rules rather than why my electorate or my sector is an exception to those rules. The significance of that integrity is, first and foremost, to relate seriously to ourselves, to the positions that we express, because if we do not take ourselves seriously, no one will.”
My fear, Mr. President, is that we’re too far gone to even entertain such a possibility. I say this as a sourpuss – even if still only half-sour.