If only Israeli politicians would look at each other - literally

Our politicians have a serious problem in talking to one another, and even looking at each other. The excuse of playing to the cameras doesn’t make it any better.

 DEFENSE MINISTER Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar at the opening of the winter session at the Knesset, on October 4, 2021.. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
DEFENSE MINISTER Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar at the opening of the winter session at the Knesset, on October 4, 2021..
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

They were at it again this week. Another Knesset winter term has opened on the heels of the holiday season – which includes the Day of Atonement, when we are supposed to seek forgiveness not only from God, but also from our fellow humans.

The holy month of Tishrei wasn’t even over when the Israeli parliament launched a new season of deliberations on Monday, but it was as though Yom Kippur was just a very distant memory.

The problem is not our differing ideologies. It is our inability to listen to, and look at, the other person who has those differing points of view.

In the past, I was a Knesset correspondent who sat and watched deliberations in person in the parliamentary chamber. This past Monday, I was only watching on my computer, but what I saw was Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid repeatedly looking down as opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu addressed them and the other MKs. They were reading, perhaps cracking snide comments at the head of the government table directly across from the speaker’s podium. They couldn’t be bothered. It was as though they were avoiding the teacher in an elementary school classroom who they refused to take seriously.

Their government is supposed to be a government that promotes inclusiveness, but Bennett and Lapid seemed to have great difficulty just looking at their political opponent. 

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in the Knesset plenum on October 4, 2021. (credit: NOAM MOSKOVICH)Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in the Knesset plenum on October 4, 2021. (credit: NOAM MOSKOVICH)

Not that Netanyahu is one to preach. I can recall several occasions when he was prime minister, when he would be reading even as he was being addressed in the Knesset chamber. Once when a parliamentary opponent who was speaking chided Netanyahu for ignoring him, the prime minister looked up, removed his reading glasses, and recited back to the political opponent perhaps even verbatim what he had just said.

It was the height of smugness, as though he was saying, “I don’t need to make any effort to pay attention to you.” It was downright arrogant.

And yes, many of Netanyahu’s parliamentary allies, Likud party or otherwise, barely even let Bennett get a word out when he spoke in the Knesset on the day that his new government received parliamentary support and was inaugurated in June. The Likud display of childish heckling this Monday at the winter opening when Bennett spoke was perhaps only bad, compared to the worse mockery of the disruption in June. 

Through the years, there have been such verbal clashes as the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir against Labor’s Shimon Peres. Sometimes, you felt that these were people who were giving their heart and soul. Other times, the talk sank to the sewer. And sometimes both.

Thankfully, I’ve never been a member of parliament. But as a reporter for many years, I know how biting and also out-of-line the criticism can be, and you have trouble looking the opponent in the eye. Sometimes you truly feel that his or her mockery of you doesn’t merit your respect.

At times, the matters are life or death. Tempers flare. That, I believe, is understandable. You believe passionately in something. You feel that the other side has it totally wrong and their approach is damaging. In some of those cases, you can actually admire the politician fighting the fight.

There have certainly been such moments in the Knesset. 

But we have a serious problem in talking to one another. And the excuse of playing to the cameras doesn’t make it any better.

I am happy to say that I have seen cooperation and camaraderie behind the scenes in the Knesset. MKs who had been bickering with one another just moments earlier in a deliberation can then be found in the cafeteria patting each other on the back and laughing it up over lunch.

There have been many initiatives of legislative cooperation between government and opposition members because they don’t disagree on everything and sometimes the public good might just get the better of our representatives.

Many of us tell ourselves – and if not, our life partner probably reminds us periodically – to think before you get angry. Try to understand the other person. Try to respect other people even if you think they’ve lost their senses. At the very least: look at them. Don’t mock them. As many of our parents have probably told us, don’t lower yourselves to their level.

I wonder if such behavior could actually win politicians more votes in an election. Maybe that could be the new way of playing to the cameras. Boast to your followers that you fought their battle but you showed integrity and respect in doing it.

As John Lennon sang: “You may say I’m a dreamer,” but I really hope that “I’m not the only one.”

The writer is op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post.