The Knesset: From A(vigdor) to Z(oabi)

Provocations, political grandstanding and Israel Beitenu’s legislative impotence dominated this parliamentary summer.

311_Knesset fight (photo credit: Knesset Channel)
311_Knesset fight
(photo credit: Knesset Channel)
At first glance, in assessing the Knesset’s summer session, the center-right represented by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu won. The center-left opposition, led by Kadima, once again failed to find its niche and function effectively. At the same time, the right-wing side of the coalition, embodied by many of the Likud’s crop of freshman MKs, together with Israel Beiteinu and the barely-visible Habayit Hayehudi, was in a more questionable position – recording negligible legislative success, but managing to create a right-wing tenor that dominated proceedings.
Israel Beiteinu came in to the sweltering Jerusalem summer with a full schedule of legislative action. Four major bills – all grounded in the coalition agreement or tacit understandings – were supposed to be advanced. But the so-called loyalty law, the bill to enfranchise expatriates to vote and the civil union bill were tied up in closed-door negotiations at best, or at worst fell by the wayside.
The only major Israel Beiteinu bill to reach a committee vote during the session – the conversion bill – ran aground after encountering stiff opposition from overseas Jewish communities. In the last few weeks of the session, party leader Avigdor Lieberman huffed and puffed, but remained powerless to force Netanyahu to enforce coalition discipline and pass the bill in the plenum.
Israel Beiteinu, however, was not alone. Under the shadow of their ministers’ quiet acquiescence to the 10- month settlement building moratorium, Likud MKs engaged in collegial jostling to try to position themselves to the right of each other and, of course, of the freeze, without seeming too disloyal. Carmel Shama partnered up with the National Union in sponsoring a bill that would force any extension of the moratorium to obtain the near-unachievable majority approval of the Knesset, while Danny Danon also tried to push a series of bills, including one that would allow for the seizure of property owned by terrorists.
LIKE THEIR coalition partners in Israel Beiteinu, however, the Likud rank-and-file MKs found themselves hammering against a legislative wall. Netanyahu’s tight hold on the coalition, and particularly his ability to maintain support within the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, ensured that the bills trying to pull the government to the right became buried in negotiations or were rejected outright for coalition support. Even the Golan Heights and national referendum bill, legislation championed by Likud in the previous Knesset, supported by members of both opposition and coalition parties and assigned to a special joint committee formed for its preparation, was stalled amid objections by the prime minister, who feared its implications for future negotiations.
In all fairness, the center-left opposition did not fare any better legislatively. For the third straight session, Kadima failed to find the secret formula to drive wedges into the coalition through social legislation. The most notable failure came only two weeks before the end of the session, when Amir Peretz (Labor) and Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) launched legislative bids to increase the minimum wage. Despite Peretz’s and Sheetrit’s impassioned attempts to convince Peretz’s fellow Labor members that maintaining the part’s ostensibly social-democratic platform was preferable to reinforcing Netanyahu’s coalition, Labor ministers were not even shamed into abstaining in a roll-call vote on the plenum floor.
On the reverse end, the coalition rarely found itself on shaky ground during votes on key government-sponsored or supported bills. Even the law to enable the government to present its second two-year budget passed by a generous margin, despite fervent protest from opposition parties.
Stuck without legislative recourse, the two oppositions – the loyal opposition on the right, and the official opposition on the left, both found solace in nonlegislative parliamentary activity. Provocations and political grandstanding dominated a fair share of Knesset procedure throughout the summer session, and the session’s biggest parliamentary headlines were not related to legislation, but rather to cursing, pushing, yelling-down and insulting – and of course, the presence of one Balad MK on the Mavi Marmara.
Kadima, in lieu of viable legislative challenges to the coalition’s dominance, returned to its now-regular practice of parliamentary sparring through filibusters, embarrassing roll-call votes and – at near-record rates in recent years – summoning Netanyahu to respond to criticismthrough gathering the 40 signatures required to force the premier to address the Knesset.
But Kadima aside, in the field of nonlegislative parliamentary activity – a category expanded this session to encompass everything from filibusters to fisticuffs – there is no question the right-wing won the battle for the headlines. Arab MKs provided the initial fuel for the fire when, during the week before the session began, they paid a quick trip to Libya, kicking off a lengthy Knesset-Foreign Ministry-Justice Ministry debate as to whether or not the North African state constituted an enemy country [it does not]. But the vagaries of the Bishara Law – which could be interpreted as expanding the category of enemy states well beyond the commonly accepted legal definition – were quickly forgotten a month later, when Haneen Zoabi presented right-wing MKs with a far better opportunity to question the loyalty of their Arab colleagues.
Her presence aboard the only ship in the Gaza flotilla to engage in violent confrontation with an IDF boarding party sparked a series of debates that are likely to go down in the legislature’s annals – but not necessarily for their rhetorical brilliance. When the freshman Balad MK took the podium to address her participation in the flotilla, Anastasia Michaeli (Israel Beiteinu) stormed the podium, allegedly to wrest the microphone from Zoabi. Although the ensuing melee in front of the speaker’s podium stopped short of the open brawling occasionally seen in the South Korean parliament, the images filmed that day by the Knesset Channel are unlikely to leave us any time soon.
THAT INCIDENT was closely followed by the televised House Committee hearing to revoke a series of parliamentary privileges from Zoabi – a hearing in which the controversial vote was rivaled for headline material by Yulia Shamalov- Berkovich’s (Kadima) “accidental” confusion between Zoabi’s last name and a slang term for a penis.
It was on the issue of Zoabi that the government may have suffered its largest – but almost silent – defeat to its own right-wing elements.
Although very senior coalition ministers and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin tried to block the procedural vote necessary to approve the House Committee’s decision, the veteran Likud leadership could not hold back the young guard, spearheaded by House Committee chairman Yariv Levin, and continue to delay interminably the vote on Zoabi’s privileges.
Even Kadima was pulled rightward, and ultimately split on the issue of Zoabi’s privileges. Yoel Hasson and Yohanan Plesner were among Zoabi’s most vocal interrupters during her first attempt to address the Knesset plenum, and Hasson and Shamalov-Berkovich were among the 34 MKs who voted in favor of suspending her privileges.
Zoabi, said Danny Danon days after the vote, did much of the right-wing’s work for the Likud. He himself apologized to voters that MKs were not able to do more to her, and said that he believed that public sentiment was such that he was merely “reflecting the public, which would like to see us put her on a plane out of Israel.”
But even on Zoabi, the right may have lost as much as it won. In the weeks following the final vote on her privileges, international focus turned a judgmental eye on the Knesset. Even more significantly, Zoabi’s Knesset tribulations have transformed her in the course of three months from an unknown with almost no legislative record to an internationally-recognized spokeswoman for the Arab nationalist perspective embraced by her party, Balad. Photogenic, female, articulate – and yes, Christian, Zoabi’s new-found notoriety has allowed her to sidestep more moderate Arab MKs and slide into the very large shoes of her mentor, former Balad chairman Azmi Bishara.
Which may, on second thought, offer a second opinion on the initial question of this session’s big winner.
Netanyahu, although legislatively successful, remains under pressure from the right, which proved its ability to dominate Knesset discourse during the last weeks of the session. The right and the left both failed to generate any legislative successes to advance their positions vis a vis the government, and thus are left treading water. But MK Haneen Zoabi, without question, has undergone a marked change during this legislative session, making a name for herself through notoriety, and receiving a large leg up on the way from the very MKs who sought headlines for themselves by opposing her.