Cloudy, with a chance of sun

After a stormy winter session, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin prepares for a sizzling summer.

Rivlin 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rivlin 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It was not an easy session for the Knesset – nor for Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. For Rivlin, the winter session began with headbutting with the government over the economic arrangements bill and continued with his initial opposition to key coalition-sponsored legislation.
In its dramatic last weeks, during which he drew the ire of coalition MKs, he vocally opposed the establishment of probes into left-wing NGOs.
Rivlin, who is believed to have set his sights on succeeding Shimon Peres in the presidency, still has to consider his political future. But the outspoken and unrepentant Likudnik is emphatic in his support for unpopular positions.
While his defense of parliamentary democracy is well-known, Rivlin opposes Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s hard-line stance toward foreign workers’ children and does not hold back in his criticism of “headline-seeking provocations” by freshman MKs.
He is one of the most veteran figures on the political playing-field. After his decades in the Knesset, he has a longrange perspective when he compares the winter session that drew officially to a close on Sunday with previous sessions.
How would you characterize this Knesset session?
This session was very stormy, and much of the debate related to topics that are at the center of arguments in society. Many times, it seemed to me that people were taking advantage of these arguments to draw in voters.
They saw what voters wanted them to fight over, and that is what they fought over, but did not try to address issues in such a way as to reach consensus.
Electoral exigencies prevented reaching decisions that could have drawn differing perspectives nearer to each other.
This was particularly true regarding relations between Jews and Arabs.
There was the question of Arab Israelis’ loyalty to a State of Israel whose anthem is “Hatikva.” Should every Arab citizen be required to say with warmth and enthusiasm every morning “as long as within the heart, the Jewish soul is longing” when they aren’t Jewish and when the Zionist dream was not their dream, but the State of Israel is their state?
There was also an attempt to emphasize the Jewish nature of the state that was reflected in a question of to what extent it should relate to refugees and foreign nationals who work here in the way you’d relate to slaves. One of the most important things that led to the world’s recognition of the necessity and morality of the creation of Israel was the suffering of the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora. It is as if we forgot that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, as it is written in the Torah and as we will read soon in the Haggada. As former slaves we must remember that we must act in our independent state not just with mercy, but with humanity and with understanding of the strangers among us.
This conflict was expressed also in extreme ways. Instead of finding a way to create a clean break, a watershed moment in which we end what was permissible until now and start a new era, we mixed everything up. To expel children is something that awakens passionate arguments. On the other hand, it is completely logical to restrict entry, as all states in the free world do. There is also the fact that the influx of African refugees has created serious crises in places like Eilat, Tel Aviv and Arad.
And third , there were the social topics – the gap that was created and is expanding between rich and poor.
The middle class feels more and more pushed downward, and the gap that is created becomes more and more unbridgeable. All of these factors led to an accentuation of emotions rather than a search for solutions that are both liberal and maintain democracy.
But isn’t it the Knesset’s job to debate these issues, even if you don’t agree with the outcome or the style of the debate?
If the Knesset had addressed these issues in a pertinent manner and found solutions, I would say that it is not just the Knesset’s right but its obligation.
But instead, these issues were taken advantage of to create an electoral environment dominated by a mentality once expressed by the Bolsheviks’ famous quip of “the worse it is, the better it is.”
This perspective brought the situation to conflicts that threaten democracy.
The majority will always emerge victorious over the minority, but should operate out of a desire to reach a consensus. Over the past 20 years, we see more and more attempts by a majority, who forget that just a minute ago they were a minority, to impose its opinions on others. Parliamentarism always aspired to reach consensus and thus kept the electoral threshold low to allow the representation of as many ideas as possible.
Increased transparency also became part of the winter session’s experience, because now everything that happens in committees can be seen live via the Internet. There is nothing that an MK does that is not revealed to the public. This will lead to greater believability in the long run – but in the short term, it has brought about an increase in criticism, because of the provocations by MKs. MKs know that what makes headlines are scandals and not the intensive labor that any given MK devoted to, for example, ensuring that the recommendations of a report are realized. The debate over the Sheshinski recommendations was expressed just through scandals, rather than through a reasonable public debate regarding what to do.
Apropos Sheshinski, the hearings over the report in the Finance Committee sometimes seemed more of a carnival than a real debate. In the past, people like you and former MK Haim Oron (Meretz) were dominant in the committee – do you think that in the current Knesset, the status of the Finance Committee and the quality of its debate has declined?
Most of the committee members are freshman MKs. It is hard to explain to new MKs that their status in the Knesset will be determined by consistent work, by regularity and across a long time line. You can’t make your name in one day, but if you drum up scandals, you can make a headline. They think about establishing their electorate for the immediate elections.
Forty of the veteran MKs are members of the government, and thus do not serve on committees. Among the veteran opposition members who were ministers in the past, there are a few like Meir Sheetrit, Tzachi Hanegbi, Shaul Mofaz, Avi Dichter and Gideon Ezra who are active. There is a situation in which the majority of the work is done by freshmen. There are dominant veterans, like Haim Katz, Shelly Yacimovich, Eitan Cabel, Ilan Gilon and Zevulun Orlev, and some new ones who take care to carry out their jobs well. But most of the newer MKs have no patience. They understand that not just intensive work, but also scandals, will help them and thus each one competes with the other to garner headlines.
You paint a pretty dismal picture of the session that just ended. What do you think that the summer session will look like?
The next session will necessarily bring the Knesset closer to the period in which is is slated to go to elections and conclude its work. The coalition members are beginning to express more and more the lines along which they are willing to agree and to what they aren’t. They will begin thinking even more about what will be used in the next elections as an issue to draw voters. There are parties in the coalition which are competing for the same voters as the Likud, and they will naturally want to emphasize the differences, including by emphasizing the differences in the coalition.
The coalition has nothing to fear from these attempts. All of these arguments can be sharpened when it is deemed politically useful to do so. Of course Kadima can use legislation that it would never have imagined supporting if it were in power with the specific intent of emphasizing the rifts in the coalition. Kadima can support Israel Beiteinu against Shas, support [Ehud] Barak at the Likud’s expense and the Likud at Israel Beiteinu’s. We will see all of this more and more in the coming weeks.
One issue that seems to appear periodically – with little actual action – is electoral reform. Do any of the myriad proposals for reform have any chance in this Knesset?
The need to change the electoral system is a constant shadow over the Knesset and has been expressed through a number of legislative attempts. I have no doubt parliamentary democracy is the only system that suits the Israeli experience and has the ability to enable the country to deal with the burning topics that stand before it.
I am not certain that the coalition will be able to rally around a substantive change to the governmental system.
It would be better if the two big parties (which aren’t so big), Kadima and the Likud, will reach an agreement on key points and will bring any changes through the Knesset that way.
The Likud cannot advance reform with the parties with which it shares the coalition. Most of them except the Likud are sectoral, as are most opposition parties other than Kadima, and thus both Kadima and the Likud must agree on what can be changed and what must not be changed in advance of the coming elections. [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu and [opposition leader Tzipi] Livni should sit together, and discuss of all of the options to determine what they can advance in light of the sectoral parties and of the country’s needs.
Otherwise, there is no possibility this Knesset will reach any reform to the governmental system. [Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor] Lieberman wants a presidential system, and I don’t think the Likud and Kadima want one. It is very possible that if either party knew it would win the elections, it would agree to it. But if it was in the opposition, it would say that to go to a system of majorization is a terrible thing.
In this recent session, you were frequently criticized by MKs – particularly those in the coalition – for your sometimes unpopular positions against key initiatives, such as the establishment of parliamentary investigative committees into the funding and activities of left-wing NGOs. Did you overstep the bounds?
Of course, every MK would be happy if the Speaker supported him. I don’t engage in personal attacks, but I do express my opinion as clearly as I can.
My opinions weren’t formed this week or this month or this year, or even from the day I was elected to the Knesset.
My opinions were formed on the first day that I stood up for my beliefs 70 years ago, when I was three. I am a donkey who does not change its beliefs. If I were a left-winger, I would be called consistent, but I am on the Right, so I am simply a donkey. I’m proud to be one, because I believe that Israel can exist as a Jewish state only if it is democratic, and that it must be a Jewish state because the Jewish people have no other state.
But is it a good idea to risk alienating your potential support base for the sake of those beliefs?
If people think that I behave the way I do because of personal intent, they have no idea what they are talking about, because it is much easier for me to rally support among my friends and not to annoy them. I don’t expect people in the opposition to support me.
My insistence on my vision of a Jewish state is known to Arab citizens.
Because of that they respect me, but I am not their cup of tea. I will continue to express my opinion and I will act according to the beliefs and traditions in which I was raised and educated – in spite of any idea held by any member of Knesset about my future. My actions are not taken because of my future, but in spite of my future.