Knesset responsible for consequences of Pinto's predicament - comment

We in Israel are very lucky to live in a country where there are strict maternity leave laws. However, these laws did not do enough to protect MK Shirley Pinto on Wednesday afternoon.

MK Shirley Pinto brings her six-day-old baby to the Knesset Wednesday, enabling her to take part in a vote. (photo credit: NOAM MOSKOVICH/KNESSET)
MK Shirley Pinto brings her six-day-old baby to the Knesset Wednesday, enabling her to take part in a vote.
(photo credit: NOAM MOSKOVICH/KNESSET)

On Wednesday, December 15, less than a week after giving birth, Yamina MK Shirley Pinto strode into the Knesset plenum with her brand new baby to vote on a bill.

Let that sink in for a second.

Most of us know exactly what a six-day postpartum woman is going through and what a six-day-old baby looks and feels like. Most of us cannot imagine any situation in which a woman, less than a week after giving birth – for context, that’s less time than the days until a boy’s brit milah – would be seen or needed anywhere other than outside her own home.

We in Israel are very lucky to live in a country where there are strict maternity leave laws that protect us from such circumstances. However, these laws did not do enough to protect Shirley Pinto on Wednesday afternoon.

For those who are not aware of the circumstances that led to this, let me set the scene:

 hirley Pinto, the Knesset's first deaf MK, gave birth on Thursday. (credit: Liat Petcho) hirley Pinto, the Knesset's first deaf MK, gave birth on Thursday. (credit: Liat Petcho)

Wednesday afternoons in the Knesset plenum are generally reserved for private bill votes. 

As has been the case for quite a while now, the mood in the plenum was tense and charged. You see, the coalition – which already has the narrowest of majorities – was one vote shorter than usual. Yamina MK Shirley Pinto had just given birth. More than that, the opposition had refused to offset her by having one of their own members skip out on plenum votes. 

The offsetting process is a long-held tradition – not a rule – in Knesset that allows for some compassion when an MK cannot be present for votes due to unforeseen, emergency circumstances such as a family member dying, emergency medical procedures and, yes, a female lawmaker giving birth.

This time, though, the opposition chose not to stick to tradition. It should be noted that this is not the first time that this, or any opposition has declined to offset a vote and it is perfectly within its purview to do so.

This refusal to offset should not have mattered though because even without Pinto, the coalition still has a one-vote advantage over the opposition. When the opposition refused to offset Pinto, the coalition should have ensured the votes of the rest of their members or worked out some other solution to maintain their edge.

Unfortunately, that did not happen.

One of the risks taken in building a narrow coalition made up of several competing ideologies is that every single vote counts and, ultimately, MKs have to follow coalition discipline and, sometimes, vote against their conscience.

It also means that it is very easy for even a single MK to hold the coalition hostage. It seems that on this particular day, two coalition MKs – Yamina’s Abir Kara and Ra’am’s Waleed Taha – were not very happy with the coalition and some of the votes being brought up and they did not want to vote along with the coalition. 

So what did they decide to do? Kara drove to Pinto’s house to bring her and her brand-new baby into the Knesset so she could vote and maintain the coalition’s numbers.

There should be no question that almost every single decision made that led to this ultimate outcome was wrong. There is no question that both sides are to blame and should be held responsible. It is true the opposition has the right to refuse an offset and it may even have justifiable reasoning.

Ultimately, the tradition of offsetting is based on mutual trust and respect, something that is sorely lacking between the two sides and that the coalition has time and again put to the test.

Regardless, it was a bad look for the opposition, which lacked all compassion for a new mother, her political affiliation notwithstanding. The coalition – the side Pinto is on – should have taken the steps to ensure its partner would not be called upon during such a sensitive time.

The coalition controls the Knesset agenda and it is well within its power to ensure important votes don’t come up if it doesn’t have the ability to pass them. The coalition can also enforce coalition discipline – requiring its members to vote along with the coalition as a whole or suffer the consequences.

But while the coalition and opposition are throwing the blame ball back and forth, they are forgetting the real consequences of their actions. In a time where women, mothers especially, are discriminated against time and again in the workspace, the Knesset completely disregarded a new mother’s due sensitivity in favor of political games. 

The Knesset and its members seem to be forgetting that in addition to voting on budgets and other legislation, they are meant to be leading the country. 

Part of leadership is setting an example for those being led. What example was set for employers all over the country when so easily, an MK of all people, was pulled out of maternity leave to vote in Knesset?

What example was set for other young women and mothers who are already concerned about what compassion they might receive during and after their own leave?

Both the coalition and opposition have their role to play in Knesset, and sometimes it can get messy and ugly. Sometimes they have to be ruthless. Politics isn’t meant for the faint of heart and it’s not always nice.

But at the very least, the Knesset should always have its citizens’ interests at the forefront of their decision-making. In this case, everyone lost – most notably, a female MK and all of the other women and new mothers like her who had to watch their own maternity-leave nightmares come to life. 

The political games have got to have a redline, and the Knesset has just found it. They must be held responsible for the consequences of their actions here and work to ensure that no woman – MK or average citizen – is the collateral damage ever again.

The writer is the founder of Israeli Politics Simplified – a Facebook page dedicated to simplifying and informing Anglos about politics in Israel.