Knesset's winter session ends with united front

The last day of the Knesset's winter session, usually marked with festive talk of vacations and holiday plans, was overshadowed Wednesday by the ongoing violence in the North. Cafeteria televisions, normally tuned to the Knesset Channel, were all switched to the major news networks as MKs sat glued to the screens, choosing to forego their reserved speech slots in the plenum for the constant news updates. It was a somber ending for an especially intense session, said members of the 17th Knesset. Over 1,500 laws were drafted by MKs, although less than a dozen of those passed a first vote, in the last two years of the 16th Knesset. Although formal statistics have not yet been released, a source in the Knesset said that average plenum attendance was 20 percent higher than in the previous Knesset. During Wednesday's plenum, the MKs rushed to pass as many bills as possible through a first reading. The bills that gathered the most support, however, were those with themes related to the ongoing crisis. MKs Ami Ayalon (Labor) and Yuri Shtern (Israel Beiteinu) drafted a bill to prohibit the firing of workers from the North who are unable to come to work for as long as the conflict continues. Meanwhile, MK Avishay Braverman (Labor) met with Finance Minister Avraham Hirschon to discuss ways in which northern residents would be compensated for damage to their property. The first session was marked by controversy and deep divisions, said MKs, who added that they had just begun to find their footing when the recent violence broke out. "The opposition was just starting to find some common ground against [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert... The truth about Olmert's party - that all the ministers are at odds with each other over convergence - was going to emerge too," said one Likud MK. "Then the war happened and we all united. That's what we had to do... A very disjointed Knesset can suddenly become the most united Knesset because of war." The sentiment that the Knesset was more united Wednesday than it had been in years was echoed by MKs across the political spectrum. In the cafeteria, MKs from Israel Beiteinu could be seen with Labor Party members, while Likud and Kadima MKs turned heads when they started a round of bawdy jokes about wanted terrorists. The seeming utopia was just a front, some MKs said in off-the-record conversations. Many were just biding their time until it would be "appropriate" to oppose the government again, said one Israel Beiteinu MK. During the opening weeks of the Knesset, MKs seemed impossibly divided over the main item of the day - the realignment plan. On Wednesday, that plan seemed farther away then ever, with many MKs arguing that Olmert would never achieve a majority for a unilateral pullout in the wake of the recent violence from Gaza and Lebanon. Several months ago, bets were being placed on how soon the Knesset would be dispersed. The slim majority garnered by Olmert's Kadima Party in the last elections led many to speculate that the 17th Knesset would not last the year, especially when Defense Minister Amir Peretz's Labor Party faced rebellion from a "rebel quintet" of veteran party MKs. Meanwhile, in the opposition, fierce exchanges between Israel Beiteinu and Arab MKs threatened to take over the Knesset, and the two groups refused to converse with each other, even outside of the plenum. "During a war everyone comes together," noted Culture and Sport Minister Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor). "It's afterwards that really matters." Although committees will continue to meet during the summer recess, the plenum will not return until mid-October. Many MKs petitioned Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik to extend the Knesset's session by several weeks in light of the current situation, but Itzik refused on the grounds that it was too late to process the request.