There was a lot of comfort in the festive opening session of the 20th Knesset last Tuesday. It was a comfort that reflected certain aspects of the Israeli reality which did not manifest themselves in the course of the ugly election campaign we underwent in recent months, but unfortunately not ones that are likely to dominate the political reality during the term of the 20th Knesset – whether it be a full term of four years, or less.
Knesset opening sessions are always festive events, due largely to the new MKs – 39 this time – who are full of excitement and expectation (and even disbelief), and the fact that the overwhelming majority of MKs, new and veteran alike, are on their best behavior.
What contributed to the feeling of comfort in the opening session last week – at least for those of us for whom political moderation, tolerance and conciliation are supreme values – were the speeches delivered by President Reuven Rivlin, and by the veteran MK acting as Knesset speaker until the election of the permanent speaker, MK Amir Peretz (who remained acting speaker for two hours only).
The former is a Jerusalem-born Ashkenazi from the political Right, the latter a Mizrahi born in Morocco from the political Left, though Rivlin is no longer a typical representative of today’s Israeli Right and Peretz is far from typical of his generation of immigrants from Morocco.
Both Rivlin (76) and Peretz (63) were first elected to the 12th Knesset in 1988 (which was also Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first Knesset), and both served as ministers – Rivlin as communications minister in the 29th government and Peretz as defense minister in the 31st and environment minister in the 34th. Neither stood out as exemplary backbenchers, or memorable ministers, though Rivlin’s two terms as Knesset speaker, in the 16th and 18th Knessets, turned him into what he is today: a figure who seeks to bring reconciliation to a divided and torn society.
Both speeches described the changing realities in Israeli society, for better and worse, and called for action by MKs and citizens alike against the evils of hatred and incitement which have spread like fire in a field of thorns, and against the injustices of social inequalities.
Rivlin, who has on several occasions since the elections elegantly admonished Netanyahu for his statement during the elections about the flocks of Arab voters flowing to the election booths with the help of buses financed by foreign funds, on this occasion remained stately, mostly addressing the new MKs and reminding them that they are in the Knesset to represent the people, and their pains and woes.
Peretz did touch upon Netanyahu’s statement, without mentioning his name, when he claimed that all the various social and ideological groups have a right, which is not to be condemned or incited against, to flock the polling booths so that their voices should be heard, but also addressed the prime minister directly, reminding him that “there are election speeches, and there is reality; there are political commitments, and there are commitments to the state; there are long-term commitments, and there are longer-term commitments.”
He called upon Netanyahu to help heal the wounds in the Israeli society, and to use his talents to cause the Western world, headed by the US, to stand by Israel with the same determination and force as they did in the past, and to act as the leader of the state, who serves the people, and not as leader of the Likud and leader of the Coalition.
He also reminded Netanyahu that in the Jewish sources there is no separation between social justice and peace, quoting the from Psalms 85:10: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have coalesced with each other.”
There was also comfort in the choice of the Mizrahi poet Erez Biton – winner of this year’s Israel Prize for literature, elected as the laureate after a scandal initiated by Netanyahu around the prize almost resulted in its cancellation this year – to read chapter 122 from Psalms, and of Belarus- born singer Arkadi Duchin to perform before the MKs and invitees (unfortunately, women are barred from singing on these occasions because of religious sensitivities).
However, if one needed a reminder of some of the less pleasant phenomena which the 20th Knesset holds in store, it came in the form of an interview by Channel 10’s Raviv Drucker of new Likud MK Oren Hazan, number 30 on the Likud list, and son of former Likud MK Yehiel Hazan, convicted for fraudulently voting twice on May 29, 2003.
Hazan junior, who among other past activities has run a hotel with a casino in Bulgaria, and not long ago got into a boisterous dispute with the municipality of Ariel over a financial debt which resulted in mutual complaints being submitted to the police, admitted to Drucker in this interview that in the course of Operation Protective Edge he had approached the NGO Breaking the Silence (founded by former IDF combatants after the second intifada to uncover some of the less fathomable activities of the IDF in the West Bank and Gaza Strip), under the assumed name of Asaf Hazan, to inform its representatives of alleged war crimes committed in an army unit he claimed to be serving in.
Breaking the Silence suspected that the information was a complete fabrication and didn’t publish it. Hazan admitted in his interview with Drucker that this was true, justifying his action (which he claimed had been initiated by the Samaria Citizens’ Committee) in that Breaking the Silence publishes lies and that his goal was to uncover this fact. In this case, however, the liar was Hazan himself, and unlike his father he didn’t even try and conceal the fact.
Oren Hazan will undoubtedly hit the headlines in future as one of the Knesset’s jokers, and all that is left for us to do is to regret that at the last moment the Likud gained a 30th seat at the expense of United Torah Judaism’s 7th.
Finally, a brief comment on the official photograph in the Chagall Hall of the leaders of the 10 lists elected to the 20th Knesset. In fact, there were only nine leaders present; Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) was absent. My first thought was that Lapid was making a political protest of some sort, though I couldn’t figure out why he would do such a thing. My second thought was that he accidentally missed the occasion.
However, a senior Knesset official whom I consulted told me that every Tuesday afternoon Lapid meets his 18-year-old autistic daughter, and that he left the Knesset building soon after taking the oath.
This was a surprising piece of information for anyone who is not acquainted with Lapid. Lapid is certainly not going through an easy period in his political career, which makes his decision to place a family commitment before a political photo opportunity all the more impressive.
By the look of things most of the achievements Lapid takes credit for as finance minister, especially vis-à-vis the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), are about to go down the drain within the framework of the new coalition agreement. So for him the 20th Knesset promises to be a humbling experience. It will be interesting to see whether he emerges strengthened from it, or whether he will sink into political oblivion like his father did after the 16th Knesset.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.