Reality Check: Parliamentary hero

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin has prevented his own Likud party from introducing a number of bills which increase the government's power in the Knesset.

jeff barak 88 (photo credit: )
jeff barak 88
(photo credit: )
Parliaments around the world have been having a sorry time of it lately. In England, the mother of Parliaments, MPs from the leading parties have been caught fiddling their expenses in ways more creative than even disgraced former finance minister Avraham Hirchson could have dreamed up. In a move to stem the growing criticism of their behavior, the British MPs forced the resignation of Michael Martin, the speaker of the House, who had been slow to realize the seriousness of the situation. Last week, for the first time in its 300-year history, the House of Commons elected a Jewish MP, the Conservative John Bercow, as its new speaker. In the congratulatory words of David Cameron, the Conservative Party and opposition leader, this "historical first" is "a milestone that we should mark." But despite these warm words, it seems likely (the vote itself was secret) that Cameron voted for a different Conservative candidate, and that Bercow was elected on the strength of Labor votes. Indeed, the left-leaning Bercow is regarded as "suspect" in the eyes of many traditional Tories and there are some who have already warned that they will seek to depose him in the next Parliament should the Conservatives, as is expected, win the next elections. Some Conservative MPs even accused Bercow of toadying up to Labor over the past few years to ensure its support in such an eventuality as the election of a new speaker. This animosity toward the speaker from members of his own party has its direct corollary to the situation here, and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. Rivlin is accused of cozying up to the opposition to win enough votes in the Knesset to become the next president when Shimon Peres retires. In the last election for president, Rivlin was initially the favorite but at the last minute lost out to Peres. Since then he has made no secret of his desire to move in to Beit Hanassi at some date in the future. BUT NO ONE can accuse Rivlin of toning down his right-wing views to court favor with Kadima. His opposition to a Palestinian state is well known, and he told residents of the West Bank settlement of Eli, just days before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's forced embrace of a demilitarized Palestinian state: "I think the term 'natural growth' is apologetic rather than a principled stance. We live in these areas based on belief in the righteousness of our way and also because we view these areas as a security belt for the State of Israel." And yet, Rivlin's actions as Knesset speaker over the past few weeks have earned him the hostility of his Likud colleagues and even the refusal of Netanyahu to meet with him. His "crime" is ideological, but not in the normally understood meaning of the word in the local context. Rivlin, and this is what is annoying his party colleagues, is a true believer in parliamentary democracy. As speaker, Rivlin has prevented the Likud from introducing a number of bills which increase the government's power in the Knesset, including what has become known as the "Mofaz bill," which states that seven MKs, or one-third of a Knesset faction, are enough to split off from their party and form their own faction. This bill, as its name suggests, is directed at Shaul Mofaz, whom the Likud has targeted as a likely defector from Kadima. By reducing the number of MKs needed to defect from one party to form their own new faction - and thus receive state funding - the Likud is hoping to tempt Mofaz to join its coalition. GIVEN THE coalition's majority in the Knesset, this bill will pass if put to the vote, but Rivlin last week refused to put it on the agenda. His argument is simple: The Knesset is not the government's rubber stamp and must not keep silent when the government presents bills that are publicly unacceptable or incompatible with political morality. Changing the rules for the formation of new party factions just to suit the needs of the ruling coalition is one such example of a bill that is incompatible with public morality. The majority, says Rivlin, must not be allowed to trample the rights of the minority. And in an earlier example of putting these words into practice, he decided that his first official visit as Knesset speaker would be to Umm el-Fahm, to highlight the fact that Israeli-Arab towns and their residents are full participants in the State of Israel, something the despicable electoral success of Israel Beiteinu has unfortunately called into question. While in Umm el-Fahm, Rivlin also made a statement about "Hatikva" that very few Jewish Israelis, never mind right-wing politicians, would note: "I cannot obligate a non-Jewish person to sing: 'As long as deep in the heart the soul of a Jew yearns,'" pointing out that the national anthem is irrelevant to one in five of the country's citizens. In case people think Rivlin was playing to his audience there, he also told Umm el-Fahm residents that agitating against the State of Israel was strictly forbidden. Unfortunately, it seems that Rivlin's moral stance concerning the majority's use of its power is unlikely to be enough to prevent the introduction of the "Mofaz bill" this week, perhaps even today, as Knesset procedure does not grant him any discretion in the matter. Rivlin attempted to maintain the Knesset's honor; the government, sadly, intends to trample on it. The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.